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Community development’s unseen benefit? Good health

The community development world has had a big "Aha!” moment. The work we’ve been doing for decades—revitalizing low-income neighborhoods—doesn’t just create decent housing and economic stability, it helps people stay healthy.

It turns out that how healthy we all are is greatly determined by our zip codes.

Amy Gillman

Families who live in poor neighborhoods and struggle to find good jobs, education, food, housing, physical activity and social connection are also likely to struggle with poor health. It is no coincidence that rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes are disproportionately high in low-income communities.

It may seem obvious in the rear-view mirror, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of a mission, good things happen unintentionally, like Teflon from the space program. While we were busy helping to stabilize neighborhoods, we were also stabilizing health.

Why is this important? Because now that we know community development is linked to good health, we can work toward that goal with greater intention and purpose.

LISC and its partners have learned that for families to be healthy, their neighborhoods must at the very least provide easy and affordable access to three important needs: nutritious food, safe places to exercise and primary medical care.

LISC is committed to paying special attention to these essential needs, and we are already off to a good start. All tallied up, LISC has invested more than $325 million in new grocery stores, health centers, athletic fields and early childhood centers and playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods across the country.

And in another mini “Aha!,” we’ve learned it isn’t just what we do that promotes good health, it’s how we do it.

LISC gives low-income people a voice in the process and a seat at the table—connecting them to one another and to the business, civic and nonprofit institutions that influence and impact their neighborhoods. New science tells us that social involvement is in and of itself a powerful force in residents’ health.

New Momentum

But we can’t take credit for connecting the dots.

The Healthy Communities Initiative championed by Federal Reserve Banks and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) paved the way for this new thinking. The first Healthy Communities conference took place in 2009, and there have been 16 since.

This new understanding that good health is a happy byproduct of the work we’ve been doing for decades is giving our mission new momentum. RWJF recently announced its unprecedented vision to create a culture of health for all Americans—building a national movement that weaves health into every aspect of our lives. It includes their soon-to-launch Build Healthy Places Network, designed to bring the community development and health sectors together.

Last month, I attended SOCAP Health and was thrilled to see these connections being made among the 400+ participants. It was an inaugural gathering of thought leaders in finance, health care, philanthropy and community development who seek to build a culture that values overall health, not just health care. In other words, creating stable neighborhoods that not only address health issues when they arise, but create an environment that helps prevent them in the first place.

LISC is embracing medical institutions, public health departments, philanthropies and others who see the clear connections between health and community development.

We’re building on what we’ve learned and expanding our efforts with renewed purpose because now we know that the end game isn’t just decent housing, good schools and safe streets. It’s also healthier families. 

Over the next few months, the Institute is turning our Spotlight on innovative ideas in health. We’ll be covering projects like LISC’s new Community Health Advocates program, highlighting useful resources in our “How To Do It” section, and publishing “Thinking Out Loud” posts like this one to share ideas around this important work.

The big “Aha!” has happened. New opportunities abound. And LISC is working hard to seize the day.

Amy Gillman is a National Program Director for Community Health and Early Childhood Facilities at LISC.

Posted in Health & Wellness, Thinking Out Loud

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