Public health should be a top priority of development projects in the United States because individual well-being is the foundation of equitable and resilient communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 34 million people in the United States have diabetes, and more than 84 million have prediabetes. Additionally, approximately 20% of adults in the United States experience mental illness, which has a significant impact on their quality of life and productivity. Investing in public development projects that prioritize public health can help reduce the burden of preventable chronic diseases and improve mental health outcomes.
Preventable Chronic Diseases and Mental Health Concerns
Reducing the impact of preventable chronic diseases can increase economic productivity. Chronic diseases reduce people’s ability to work productively. In turn, this causes significant losses to the economy. The Milken Institute has stated that chronic diseases cost the U.S. economy around $1 trillion per year.
Improving mental health care outcomes can also reduce healthcare costs and increase productivty. Mental health disorders create an estimated economic burden of $200 billion annually in the United States. So it’s easy to see why prioritizing health in the way we build things is critcal to the economic well-being of our society as a whole.
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Moreover, healthy and happy people have high levels of life satisfaction. Thus, promoting health and health literacy gives communities more equity and builds civil society.
The Multiplier Effect of Building Public Health into Development Projects
Incorporating public health into development projects can have a multiplier effect on different sectors, such as education, agriculture, and infrastructure. For example, providing access to clean water and sanitation not only protects people from diseases, but can also increase school attendance and agricultural productivity. Therefore, integrating public health aims into development projects is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic choice that promotes equity and economic sustainability.
Community engagement and data science are essential tactics from a public health perspective. Understanding both the needs and desires of the community for things like green spaces, active transporation, access to healthcare facilities, and healthy food options minimizes assumptions by leveraging qualitative and quantitative data to get to the best decisions. A community engagement software platform like Instant Input can help streamline the process of getting insights and feedback from local communities.
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Community Engagement Examples That Prioritize Public Health
Here are some examples of how community engagement has helped achieve public health success in development projects:
The NYC Green Infrastructure Plan:
Scope: Uses natural systems to manage stormwater runoff in the city
Community engagement goal: Ensure that the proposed green infrastructure projects aligned with the needs and priorities of local communities.
Outcomes: The green infrastructure plan has had a significant impact on public health and sustainability by reducing water pollution and improving the quality of drinking water.
The Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Program:
Scope: A community-led initiative that aims to create safe, healthy, and sustainable streets by increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic and reducing vehicle traffic.
Community engagement goal: Ensure that the proposed projects met the needs and concerns of local residents.
Outcomes: The program has had a significant impact on public health and sustainability by creating safer and more active transportation options.
The ThriveNYC Initiative:
Scope: A public development initiative led by the New York City government that aims to improve access to mental health services for all New Yorkers.
Community engagement goal: Ensure that the proposed mental health programs and services met the needs and priorities of local communities.
Outcomes: Community involvement helped to increase awareness of mental health issues and reduce the stigma surrounding seeking mental health services. As a result, the initiative has had a significant impact on public mental health by increasing access to mental health services and improving mental health outcomes for New Yorkers.
Mental Health and Urban Development
Research has shown that certain types of urban development can have a positive impact on mental health. For example, access to green spaces and urban parks can lead to improved mental health outcomes by reducing depression and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that people living in neighborhoods with more green spaces had less psychological distress and were more satisfied with their lives than people living in areas with less nature.
Green urban spaces have a positive impact on health. Image Credit: Instant Input
Walkable neighborhoods with infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes can also improve mental health outcomes. These offer equitable opportunities for exercise as well as active transportation options that make it easier for people to get work. A study published in the Journal of Transport & Health reports that people living in walkable neighborhoods not only have stronger social connections, but also less depression and anxiety.
On the other hand, urban environments with high noise and air pollution have been linked to increased risk factors. For example, traffic-related air pollution has been correlated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety. With this data science in mind, it’s easy to see how multiple dimensions of community well-being are deeply interconnected with development practices and health promotion.
Urban Food Deserts and Population Health
Typically associated with urban environments, food deserts are areas where residents have limited access to affordable healthy food options. The community members in these areas suffer from a lack of grocery stores or other sources of fresh produce. As a result, residents may rely on convenience stores or fast food restaurants for their nutrition, which can lead to their own health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
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A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that over 23 million Americans live in food deserts, with low-income and minority communities dispraportionately impacted. This absence of healthy food options is particularly dangerous to vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.
Development efforts that can help address this problem include creating new spaces and opportunities for grocery stores, food co-ops and farmers markets. Initiatives that promote urban agriculture and community gardens may also put healthy choices within reach at the community level.
Investing for the Well-Being of Rural Community Members
Rural areas of the United States have long been impacted by sluggish infrastructure investment. Inadequate access to basic necessities like clean water, efficient transportation, and reliable health systems negatively impacts quality of life for residents of these areas. This can lead to poorer public health and even higher child mortality compared to urban areas.
Investing in rural infrastructure is critical to improving public health outcomes in these communities and reducing health disparities between rural and urban areas. Community engagement software and platforms like Instant Input are ideal for reaching diverse local community members to gather public feedback on projects that support public health goals.
Water: A Public Health Crisis in the United States
Neglected infrastructure can have serious and direct consequences for public health. This unfortunate reality is demonstrated by contemporary examples such as Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi.
In 2014, Flint’s poorly maintained public water system created a lead contamination crisis. Once again, low-income communities and communities of color were most impacted. This report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services concluded that residents of Flint experienced a significant increase in lead exposure, with elevated levels of lead detected in children’s bloodstreams.
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Similarly, Jackson, Mississippi has faced challenges related to neglected infrastructure. A water crisis began there in February 2021, following a winter storm. The city’s water system failed and left residents for weeks without access to clean water.
The Mississippi State Department of Health has stated that the water crisis in Jackson has led to higher occurences of gastrointestinal illnesses and other health problems. To create a more equitable future with healthy communities throughout the country, infrastructure investment and empowering public health departments and healthcare professionals in municipal planning and budgeting must be prioritizied.
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The Role of Education in Public Health
In the United States, “federal, state, and local governments provide $764.7 billion or $15,120 per pupil to fund K-12 public education,” according to this report. Whether or not you feel like that’s sufficient, the quality of education in the United States is undeniably unequal. The quality of schools, teachers, facilities and materials varies widely depending on where a family lives, which is often driven by economic circumstances.
Equitable investment in education is essential for promoting population health and achieving a sustainable shared future in the United States. Education empowers people to make informed decisions about their health and well-being. Healthy choices build stronger individuals and communities. Educated community members are also more likely to participate in democratic processes like voting and other forms of citizen engagement.
Austin Public Library Roof Garden. Image credit: Michael Barrera, Wikimedia Commons
Through education, individuals can gain knowledge and skills to prevent disease and maintain healthy lifestyles, contributing to improved public health outcomes. People with higher levels of education tend to have better health outcomes than those with less education.
Community Engagement Strategy for Inclusive Participation
Community engagement strategies are designed to facilitate meaningful and inclusive civic participation. This approach recognizes the importance of building trust and partnerships between citizens, the government, and health professionals. It helps to ensure that public projects and policies reflect the needs of the community.
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Governments can use community engagement to promote inclusivity, transparency, and collaboration. To effectively collaborate with diverse groups of citizens, governments needs to:
Build relationships by holding public meetings, leveraging online citizen engagement software, conducting surveys, and actively listening to citizens’ concerns. Relationships create trust, building stronger communities.
Promote inclusivity by making sure that diverse groups of citizens have equal access to information and opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. Citizen engagement software is an essential channel to inform and get feedback from citizens in an equitable fashion because the vast majority of citizens simply cannot or do not attend planning meetings at physical locations.
Provide education to help people better understand the issues at hand, the decision-making process and potential community health impacts.
Collaborate with community groups to engage with diverse groups of citizens. These groups often have a better understanding of the needs and perspectives of the community and can help facilitate engagement efforts.
Evaluate and adapt based on feedback from citizens. This ensures that engagement efforts are responsive to the community’s needs which change and evolve over time.
How to Make Community Health a Priority in Public Projects
The process of citizen engagement plays a pivotal role in promoting community health. Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association has said, “Community health improvement efforts must engage community members to be successful. People who are affected by policies and programs must have a say in how they are designed and implemented. Their perspectives and experiences are critical to understanding what will work best in each unique community.”
Citizen engagement typically begins with a government agency identifying a need and seeking input on solutions from the community. Big data and artifical intelligence can also play a role in informing officals about gaps and needs such as targeting rural areas that do not have enough doctors or hospitals to serve the population.
Depending on the complexity and scope of the issue at hand, the discovery and planning process can last several years. Throughout this process, community engagement through participation in public forums, such as city council meetings, provides community members with a platform to voice their concerns and opinions. Citizen engagement platforms like Instant Input increase equity by giving community members online acccess to project information and by providing surveys, commenting and other mechanisms for public feedback that don’t require attending a meeting at a specific location and time.
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The Future of Public Health in Community Development
Addressing health care system disparities in urban and rural areas is a crucial step towards achieving positive health outcomes for our communities. Uniform access to trained health professionals and medical facilities can help save lives. While digital health technologies such as telehealth and artificial intelligence have a significant role to play in providing more equal access, success cannot be achieved without modernizing existing facilities and building new ones where needed, especially in underserved rural areas.
As Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put it, “Rural Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory disease than their urban counterparts. They also face greater challenges accessing care, including primary care, mental health care, and emergency care.” It is important for public health and development professionals to partner in addressing this challenge at both the national and community levels.
The Role of Public Health Professionals in Development Projects
Public health professionals must work to ensure that development projects promote the health and well-being of the community health needs. Here are a few examples of public health professionals making a positive impact on development projects:
Public green spaces: The American Public Health Association (APHA) has promoted the development of green spaces through initiatives like “Green Cities, Healthy Communities,” which aims to increase access to parks and green spaces in urban areas. They also provide resources and guidance on how to design and maintain green spaces that promote public health.
Transportation: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided guidance on how to design communities that promote active transportation, including walking and biking. They have also supported initiatives like Safe Routes to School, which encourages children to walk or bike to school, and the Complete Streets program, which promotes the design of streets that are safe and accessible for all users.
Supportive housing: The National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) has provided guidance on how to design and implement supportive housing programs that promote health and well-being. They have also advocated for policies that support access to healthcare and other essential services for individuals experiencing homelessness.
By collaborating with policymakers, urban planners, and community members, public health professionals can help ensure that development projects are designed and implemented in a way that creates a healthier and more sustainable future.
Frequently Asked Questions
Citizen engagement platforms can play a crucial role in improving the future of public health by fostering collaboration and empowering communities to take action on health-related issues. By providing a forum for citizens to voice their concerns and ideas pertaining to public health, engagement platforms can help ensure that public health policies and initiatives are responsive to community needs and priorities.
The most common preventable chronic diseases in the United States are heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. These diseases are often linked to lifestyle factors such as poor diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic diseases cause 70% of deaths in the United States each year, and account for 75% of the nation’s healthcare spending.
Public health policy plays a critical role in shaping urban and rural development projects by promoting health equity, ensuring access to essential services, and addressing the social determinants of health.
The federal government supports healthy urban development in numerous ways. These can include funding programs and initiatives that prioritize health in urban planning and development, promoting healthy urban development through research and policy development, and through partnerships with local governments, community organizations, and private sector stakeholders.
The role of the World Health Organization (WHO) is to work with the US government, public health agencies, and other partners to promote global health. Although the WHO is not a regulatory body within the US, it is a key partner in efforts to improve health and well-being at home and around the world.