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How to Work With Public Health to Advance Livable Communities

The strong connection between health and livability benefits efforts on behalf of both

Group Of People Stretching And Practicing Yoga In The Park, Public Health And Livable Communities

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A major focus of public health is to help support and create livable communities.

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.

AARP Livable Communities Newsletter

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. 

State Governments
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 Government
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.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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."

— from "5 Questions for Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D."

Working With Public Health On Livable Community Efforts

Here's how you can connect with the public health network in your state.

  1. Reach out to public health partners and stakeholders
    Invite public health staff to participate in coalitions or stakeholder groups, or ask them to participate — or have volunteers participate — in strategic planning, coalitions and initiatives. Look for opportunities to engage with public health stakeholders at the state and local level.
  2. Identify and access data and resources
    Use public health research to help educate public officials and the public-at-large. Public health colleagues can point to key sources of data and provide the type of analytical assistance that is crucial for making your case and defining “the ask.”
  3. Review plans and be a part of strategic efforts
    Get acquainted with relevant state and local strategic plans and determine how you can have a seat at the table for future planning. Web sites are often a good starting place to find state and local plans.
  4. Get connected
    Make use of the state tracking systems that highlight policies that directly or indirectly promote livable communities and learn how you can link to relevant activities. For instance, the CDC maintains a policy tracking system about health and livable community legislation from every state. Visit the CDC policy search database.
  5. Host forums and conferences
    Invite public health professionals to participate in roundtables or forums in order to elevate livable community issues and/or bolster the invitee list. In turn, ask these public health specialists to keep you in mind to present at their events or help facilitate workshops.
  6. Share successes and examples
    Identify ways to learn about relevant success stories and share best practices and case studies with the public health community.
  7. Seek out training opportunities
    Explore relevant onsite or online trainings and educational services for staff and volunteers around livable community issues.
  8. Research funding opportunities
    Identify ways to support grant applications or funding opportunities, such as by providing letters of support, providing volunteers, serving as the primary applicant or co-applicant, etc.
  9. Support age friendly communities
    Introduce public health stakeholders to communities in the AARP Network of Age Friendly Communities and discuss ways they can encourage other communities to join the network.
  10. Promote AARP.org/livable
    Encourage public health professionals to visit and bookmark the AARP Livable Communities website — aarp.org/livable — and sign up for the free Livable Communities monthly e-newsletter. Key public health resources have been incorporated onto the site and can be found in the Livable Communities and Public Health archive.

Key Resources

Community Commons
This interactive mapping, networking and learning utility site is all about creating healthy communities. There are more than 7,000 data points for state, county and Zip code that highlight government- and philanthropic-funded work. Place-based searchable profiles include spotlights on community initiatives with text and video in some cases.

CHANGE (Community Health Assessment aNd Group Evaluation)
This CDC tool provides a snapshot of local policy, system and environmental change strategies and helps identify where strategies are lacking so focus can be placed on areas for improvement. The CHANGE tool is located within the CDC’s “Building a Foundation of Knowledge to Prioritize Community Needs Action Guide.”

Amy Slonim, Ph.D., is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention AARP liaison. Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur is the strategic advisor for AARP Livable Communities, Education & Outreach.

5 Questions for Dr. Rose Gowan

Dr. Rose Gowen, city commissioner, Brownsville, TX

Learn More About Livable Communities and Public Health

“Livable communities are communities that people want to be in. I challenge anyone to tell me what city in the U.S. — or the world — is vibrant and livable yet filled with a lot of sick people.... Unless we’re able to provide families with the tools they need to raise their children and be positive role models for healthy eating and active living, a community will not be a livable community in the richest sense of the word.”   
  — from "5 Questions for Rose Gowen, M.D."


Each issue of the award-winning AARP Livable Communities e-Newsletter contains a mix of inspiring examples, community resources and information about livability efforts from places near and far. Subscribe today!