How to build healthy communities?


Credit: Northern Health

While there is no single formula to creating a healthy community, a ‘healthy communities approach’ is based on the guiding principle that communities themselves determine their preferred vision for the future. As such, communities need to develop their own action plan to improve the quality of life of residents based on the community’s specific characteristics, needs and assets.

What is known internationally as ‘the healthy communities approach’ considers the social, economic, environmental, and physical factors that influence the health of individuals and communities. It is based on five strategies that build on a community’s existing capacity to improve community health and well-being: community involvement, political commitment; healthy public policy; multi-sectoral collaboration; and asset-based community development.  

The healthy communities approach calls for collective action, in which all the sectors— local government as well as health, community, non-profits and other groups as well as individual citizens— work together for a common purpose.
Duhl & Hanock, 1997

Community Involvement

People cannot achieve their full potential for health—physically, socially and mentally—unless they are able to participate in the decisions that impact their well-being. Thus, community involvement and participation are vital for the success of local health objectives. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that empowerment and engagement of individuals is in and of itself health promoting1.

A healthy community provides many different ways in which its members can interact with each other to exchange information about needs and resources, become engaged in the planning and decision-making processes that affect them, and work together to achieve common goals.

For more on actions local governments can take on citizen engagement, please go here.

Societies that enable all citizens to play a full and useful role in the social, economic and cultural life of their society will be healthier than those where people face insecurity, exclusion and deprivation.
World Health Organization. Social Determinants of Health: the solid facts.

Inter-Sectoral Partnerships

In a healthy community all sectors – including government, health, business, education, community services, and the voluntary sector – recognize that the health of their community is everyone’s business and work together to support community health and well-being.

Local governments have a key role to play in creating healthy communities, but they cannot play this role alone. The healthy communities approach doesn’t require local governments to assume responsibility for things that fall under the jurisdictions of other orders of government. Rather, it asks locally elected officials to ensure that their decision-making reflects an inclusive, collaborative approach to building communities that are vibrant, sustainable and health promoting on multiple levels.

A key partner for local governments in healthy communities work are regional health authorities. To learn more about partnerships with health authorities, go here.

A healthy municipality is essentially one that has managed to achieve a social pact between civil society organizations, institutions from various sectors, and local political authorities to commit to carry out health promotion actions, with a view to provide the population with a good quality of life.
World Health Organization. Healthy Communities & Municipalities: Mayor’s Guide to Promoting Quality of Life

Political Commitment

While creating a healthier community is a larger task than local government alone can undertake, the role of local government is central to the whole process. High-level political commitment (from Mayors and Councils) has been a centerpiece of the healthy communities’ movement worldwide.2

Healthy public policies seek to create a supportive environment that enables people to live a healthy life, make healthy choices and transform social and physical environments.
World Health Organization.  Healthy Communities & Municipalities: Mayor’s Guide to Promoting Quality of Life

Elected officials and staff can demonstrate their commitment to a healthy community by providing leadership and decision-making that considers health and well-being in policy decisions and planning as well as in the type of partnerships that are developed and maintained.

Healthy Public Policy

‘Healthy public policy’ refers to the development of policy in non-health sectors, such as transportation or food policy, that is designed to improve the health of the population. Healthy public policy is especially important at the local level because many influences on our health—transportation options, community design, recreation opportunities, and access to healthy food choices—occur in our communities where we live, work and play.

Asset-Based Community Development

An ‘asset-based’ approach to community development empowers both individuals and communities by focusing on community strengths and on the skills, knowledge and assets of individuals. Traditional approaches to issues such as poverty, obesity, and homelessness have tended to focus on the deficiencies in communities—the things that aren’t working. The result has been a ‘needs based’ approach where ‘experts’ come in from outside the community to provide interventions.

In contrast, an ‘asset-based’ approach supports communities to build on their own strengths, knowledge and skills to shape their own solutions. Support from outside the community may still be provided, but the communities are leading the way and defining the course of action.