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Vibrant Neighborhoods: A Key to Transforming Community Health & Driving Economic Growth

March 28, 2024

Health is fostered in our homes, communities, and environments: The places where we live, work and play drive and inform our well-being.  Increasingly, local, state, and federal leaders recognize the importance of neighborhood and community infrastructure in shaping our sense of social cohesion, and individual, collective, and economic well-being. As April begins with National Public Health Week and marks Fair Housing Month, we are spotlighting that critical intersection between health and housing and how we can learn from cross-sector partnerships to accelerate well-being and economic development. 

A Shift to Systems Change for Public Health

Communities across the U.S. have been rethinking community planning decisions to promote well-being and improve health outcomes. These changes range from adopting “complete streets” principles to amending land use and zoning rules to encourage things like greater density in transit-rich areas and more equitable access to open space, healthy foods, and other resources. Together, these actions can have a transformative impact on public health: improved air quality, greater physical activity, improved nutrition, and reductions in related diseases. 

Increased attention is being paid to how systems can work together to scale strategies that will improve community design, increase housing density, and enhance health. As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, local governments have once in a generation access to funding to plan and implement these changes to foster broader systems-change. 

Thriving Communities: A Catalyst for Healthier Neighborhoods 

Scale matters. And supporting communities so that they truly promote health and economic well-being often means more than building one apartment complex near a main bus route. Often it goes upstream and earlier in the process, when local leaders across departments and sectors examine transit and land use, revisit permitting and zoning policies, and ensure that the community is a key voice at the decision-making table.  

There are many new important programs working to help communities of all shapes and sizes flourish and address key social determinants of health. HUD’s Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Program (TCTA) is one. With TCTA, local governments can receive support from TCTA providers, including Abt Global, to consider housing needs as part of their larger infrastructure investment plans, emphasizing supporting equitable development in disadvantaged communities. By bringing together diverse partners across sectors--including public health, urban planning, transportation, and housing--communities can assess, plan, and develop the strategies that will help revive their neighborhoods. Additionally, a holistic and community-engaged approach helps governments consider and prioritize investments that benefit the well-being of all residents, not just the well-off.

What does this work look like in practice? Some of the work can be planning for the near- and long-term future. For instance, as economic development accelerates, cities and towns grow, and people realize the benefits of improved air quality, health, and livable wages, new sets of challenges may arise. Communities may realize they need other strategies to prevent displacement and preserve affordable housing for the people who live there, especially older adults, low-income communities and communities of color. Other strategies might be focused on rebuilding partnerships that can begin to foster trust and address historical policies and practices that disenfranchised Black communities and communities of color. From a public health perspective these strategies could be diabetes prevention and management programs offered in public housing and low-income neighborhoods where people at high risk of the disease live. In other communities, public health departments are working across sectors to bring fresh foods and farmer’s markets on site to housing developments and Federally Qualified Health Centers. 

As the technical assistance team supporting Rockford, IL, Sun Prairie, WI, and Syracuse, NY, we know that collaboration and public engagement are vital to advancing healthier communities. In Syracuse, we have been partnering with local teams to consider how to redevelop land bisected by an interstate for affordable housing. The Abt TA team will help city staff develop strategies to coordinate across the housing and transportation projects and build their capacity to conduct inclusive and effective community engagement. A key goal is to ensure residents’ needs are central to decisions about the housing and transportation projects that will transform their neighborhood.  

Improving Health, One Neighborhood at a Time

There is little doubt that broader changes at the systems-level require commitment, funding and partnerships. At its core are local leaders who support smart growth initiatives, and who work across sectors to achieve healthier, stronger communities where everyone can thrive.   

Ultimately, we are all part of the public health fabric, no matter where we live, work and play. The intersection between health and housing is a crucial path towards building thriving communities and a brighter future. 

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