Guest post by Jessica Hersh-Ballering
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation originally convened its Commission to Build a Healthier America in 2008 “to investigate why Americans aren’t as healthy as they could be and to look outside the health care system for ways to improve health for all.” In 2009, the commission issued ten health recommendations regarding nutrition, physical activity, early childhood, tobacco use, and healthy places.
On June 19, several ULI staff members attended when the Commission to Build a Healthier America reconvened in Washington, D.C., to discuss the progress made on the original ten health recommendations and issue new guidance regarding healthy communities and early childhood.
Panelists at the June event included Nancy Andrews, president and CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund; David Fleming, public health director and health officer for Seattle and King County, Washington; Laura Trudeau, senior program director of community development at the Kresge Foundation; and David Erickson, director of the Center for Community Development Investments at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
The speakers emphasized the trend toward a convergence of the economic/community development and health fields. Fleming described significant disparities in life expectancy among census tracts in King County – disparities, he argued, that are attributable to differences in income levels. According to a report by the commission, wealth affects health in numerous ways. For instance, low-quality housing may result in increased exposure to asthmagens and other dangers, such as broken stairs. Individuals in low-income communities also tend to have reduced access to healthy food options, as well as parks, trails, and other sites that support physical activity.
Ultimately, the speakers suggested, Americans’ health can be improved by changing the places in which people live – homes, neighborhoods, entire cities. One speaker summarized the problem, saying, “The problem we are trying to solve is place-based. Poor health in individuals arises from specific community characteristics.”
In other words, as Americans, we cannot rely on physicians and the health care system alone to make us healthier; urban planners, developers, entrepreneurs, and other individuals and organizations also have the power to shape the places in which we live, work, and play. As one speaker said, “a culture of health” requires that “business, government, and others all come together in a concerted effort to build healthier communities.”