Engaging Communities to Promote Health through Design

Engaging community members in solutions that impact them is one of the most effective methods of achieving both public health and community design goals. Often times, planning and design processes fail to engage community or population groups, causing solutions or initiatives to be ineffective or ill-fit for the targeted population. As professionals working at the intersection of public health and design, we have been afforded a unique perspective on the necessity of combining evidence-based strategies with community input to affect sustainable change and build healthier communities.

Some researchers have made a connection between increased health outcomes and those who are more socially and civically engaged within their communities. The article, “Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods,” goes a step further by connecting the design of communities to its direct effect on social engagement and indirect affect on physical and mental health. This study found that residents living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods were more likely to be involved politically and socially within their communities and in turn experience greater health benefits.

In another example, author Eric Klinenberg discusses the Chicago heat wave of the late 1990’s and the differing health impacts on two communities: one with high levels of social engagement and the other with a poor social structure. Interestingly, death rates as a result of the heat wave were much lower in the community that was more connected and engaged. Klinenberg reports that the difference in death rates was a result of the social and physical isolation that one community experienced over the other.

Overall, we know that where we live impacts our health, yet not all neighborhoods are designed to promote healthy behaviors or foster engagement opportunities. The solution to this issue is multi-faceted, but a large part of it lies in the level of engagement, both socially and civically, that is experienced within a community. Decisions and legislation, such as those dealing with land use, and zoning, have large impacts on residents, influencing and often times determining access to items such as healthy foods, or safe places for activity. Other community design features such as parks, safe streets, and landscaping, can contribute to a sense of neighborhood identity, impacting walkability and resident congregation opportunities.

The Mariposa Redevelopment project in Denver, Colorado, underwent a successful engagement process during its project development phases, leading to a result that was representative of the resident’s needs and desires. Residents were interviewed, allowing project designers to develop an understanding of community opinion on items such as the types of services and features needed, transportation and safety concerns. The team also conducted a health impact assessment, covering topics as physical activity, chronic diseases, asthma, nutrition, traffic safety, and mental health.

For the Greenbridge Master Plan project, in King County Washington, project designers at GGLO went through an intensive community engagement process and coupled these efforts with regulatory changes in order to meet desired outcomes. In this example, residents were a crucial part of the civic engagement process, which was integral in creating a neighborhood that was representative of their needs. Largely because of community input and desire, the neighborhood was transformed from one that provided few amenities and access to services, to one that is walkable with ample parks, sidewalks, trails, and gardens.

The level of civic and community engagement that was demonstrated in Mariposa and King County was crucial in developing an end design that is reflective of community members needs and desires. Actionable forums that are set up to allow and encourage meaningful engagement opportunities produce practical solutions are necessary in order to create a link between project designers, government entities, and the populations they serve.

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    Walkable neighborhoods offer residents greater opportunities to interact and engage with each other and the environment. Photo Credit: NYC Dept. of Transportation.
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    The Greenbridge project engages residents in the public sphere, by providing them with amenities, such as gardening spaces. Photo Credit: Steve Keating Photography.
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    Forums that allow for meaningful discussion are crucial for developing sustained engagement among community members.
  • People living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are more likely to participate politically, trust and know their neighbors, and be involved socially.

  • People that are socially engaged and actively involved in their communities tend to be healthier, both physically and mentally.