Public health is broadly and uniquely focused on population health and all that it entails. Because a population’s health and well-being is greatly influenced by having safe, healthy, “livable” places to reside, work and stay active and engaged, a major focus of public health is to help support and create livable communities.
Public health at the state and local level is vested in numerous livable community initiatives. Operating at the governmental, academic and non-profit level, public health professionals and their expansive partnerships and coalitions play important roles in creating and implementing the policies, programs, research, surveillance and tracking that are integral to the creation, momentum and sustainability of livable communities nationwide.
Similarly, chronic disease and prevention programs — such as those for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity — have a vested interest in livable community policies and environmental changes, especially those that enable healthy living to be an easy and convenient choice for community residents.
A plethora of livable communities-related public health resources (including publications, assessment tools, tool kits, best practice models, strategic plans and training modules) are available online and from various organizations. Here are some basics about public health and working with public health departments.
PUBLIC HEALTH FUNCTIONS & LIVABLE COMMUNITIES
Surveillance and Data Collection
Public health departments have data analysis expertise and access to state and often county and Zip code data to identify physical activity rates, land use issues, access to transportation, parks and trails, etc. Public health professionals often track these issues over time and can help articulate the need for action substantiated by data demonstrating connections to health concerns, contributors to risk factors, and community health hazards.
Increasing Awareness, Partnerships, Plans and Policies
Public health professionals and various partner groups help ensure that community health is an explicitly stated goal in community planning processes as it relates to such specifics as density and design, housing mix and type, transportation infrastructure and land conservation. The process requires significant outreach efforts, education and input based on strong evidence about potential impacts. Public health professionals are able to mobilize important partner networks around issues of concern and facilitate planning and decision making. Further, public health strategic plans can delineate the critical next steps that are needed in order to have the biggest impact on livable communities.
FEDERAL, STATE AND LOCAL PUBLIC HEALTH ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
The Federal Government
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) leads public health efforts at the national level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is the department’s prevention agency, provides resources to states, communities and territories through financial grants, contracts and cooperative agreements aimed at capacity building and core public health functions.
The CDC funds an array of efforts to create healthier communities across the U.S. by working with community-based organizations and centers, schools, health care settings, work sites, transportation specialists, architects and planners, among others. Currently funded efforts you may encounter include:
- States and Territories Cooperative Agreements
The CDC supports states and territorial health departments through five-year cooperative agreements that allow the departments to provide communities with technical assistance, training and consultation to develop and implement policy, systems and environmental change.
- YMCA Pioneering Healthier Communities
Since 2005, the CDC has given funding and provided technical assistance to the YMCA to bring together local leaders to build coalitions and plans for improving community health. By 2013, 150 local communities were supported.
- Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH)
PICH provides funding to a variety of governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations — including school districts, local housing and transportation authorities, public health offices, American Indian tribes and Alaskan Native villages — to work through multi-sectorial community coalitions. The goal is to reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity) by using population-based strategies that have both a broad reach and moderate-to-large effects on risk factors including tobacco use and exposure, poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and a lack of access to chronic disease prevention, risk reduction and management opportunities.
- Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) The program supports the implementation, evaluation and dissemination of strategies, including the effective implementation of existing policy, systems and environmental improvements. Funded projects focus on implementing locally tailored evidence- and practice-based population-wide improvements in priority populations that are experiencing chronic disease disparities and associated risk factors including tobacco use and exposure, poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and a lack of access to chronic disease prevention, risk reduction and management opportunities.
Public health departments operating at the state level have authority over state-based public health issues and perform a number of functions, one of which is to deliver chronic disease prevention and control programs. (Livable communities work often resides in several program efforts.) State health departments are typically funded by the federal government, appropriations from a state’s legislature and, less significantly, from private sources including foundations.
Local health departments (LHD) are the frontline service practitioners of public health initiatives. As the place where state and local health policies and programs come together, LHDs are valuable livable community stakeholders. The local coalitions they work with or lead can be important allies in making livable community advancements.
Livable Communities and a Culture of Health
"A Culture of Health means living in a society that not only believes but also insists that every person has the chance to be as healthy as they can be."