Skip Navigation or Skip to Content

Post From Publications

At #NetworkCommons, Public Health Leaders Discuss Neighborhood-Health Connection

Written by Natalie Orenstein on August 27, 2015

Share this post!

How do neighborhoods impact health?

Three public health experts considered that question during a lively online discussion Aug. 20. The conversation was part of the Network Commons, a virtual meeting place that connects practitioners committed to improving low-income communities and the lives of people living in them.

In June, we heard from community development leaders. This time, we handed the microphone to public health leaders: Anneta Arno, Ph.D., MPH (Health Department of Kansas City), David Fleming, MD (PATH, formerly Seattle and King County Public Health), and Reginauld Jackson, DrPH (Public Health Institute), with the help of our executive director, Doug Jutte, MD, MPH, who moderated.

The leaders reflected on their aha moments, their realization of the importance of place, neighborhood, and the role of the community development sector in improving health and well-being.

Community organizations and health officials are often “working in the same neighborhoods trying to affect the same lives,” Fleming said.

Jackson had his aha moment when he read David Erickson’s book “Housing Policy Revolution: Networks and Neighborhoods” and realized that there was an entire sector—community development—addressing the social determinants of health.


Reginauld Jackson on his aha moment


For Fleming, a mapping project by Washington’s Seattle/King County Health Department brought this profound connection between health and place to light. A collaborative called Communities of Opportunity examined census tract data across various health indicators. When they were done with the analysis, the group’s maps clearly illustrated the correlation between a neighborhood’s income level and its health. Neighborhood-level data analysis combined with intentional partnerships with the community development sector helped forward the Health Department’s population health goals.


David Fleming on work forging partnerships in Seattle and King County


Public health data, panelists said, is one huge asset that the public health field can bring to community development. Jackson said he once met with the CEO of an international consulting company who wanted to support community work, but didn’t know where she could make the biggest difference. Data, Jackson said, can help practitioners and investors make smart choices.

But how is all this potential turned into practice? Panelists said practitioners need to look for ways to combine resources to make our work in low-income communities more effective.

Fleming notes that the first step is to “take the time at the beginning to create an effective, functioning cross-sector table.” All panelists noted the role of the Affordable Care Act and health care reform in expanding the role in hospitals in cross-sector efforts.

But communication can be common roadblock. “We frequently trip over semantics and use different language,” Arno said, pointing to industry rhetoric like Health Impact Assessment, collective impact, and community quarterback (the Network’s new Jargon Buster, coming this fall, will help). “But it’s really the same work. Sometimes the academics and purists get a little caught up with the language, but it’s all about making things actually work in a practical sense.”


Anneta Arno on how the public health field is changing  


Panelists stressed that the whole community is bearing the burden of an unhealthy population. And that all parts of a community have an interest in finding ways to improve health. Arno said effective community health work requires participation from nonprofits, private business owners, hospitals, and government. Public health, she said, can play the role of “chief health strategist,” keeping healthcare providers accountable in a multi-sector effort.

“Health equity,” Arno said, “is everybody’s work.”


Check out the highlights from the event on the Build Healthy Places Network YouTube Channel. Join the conversation by tweeting @BHPNetwork with the hashtag #NetworkCommons.

The Network Commons is a bimonthly series that was created in response to requests from colleagues (like you) who are eager to connect with like-minded leaders and practitioners nationwide. The commons aims to be a collegial space for reflection, as well as a spot to learn about cross-sector collaboration firsthand from field experts. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation in October when we’ll hear from a panel of medical professionals. Register here.

And community development practitioners who want to know more about public health’s experience measuring health outcomes should keep their eyes peeled for the Network’s MeasureUp, a collection of resources and tools for tracking and applying community data. Also coming soon is a series of case studies highlighting community health success stories.


Resources from the event:

About the Author

Natalie Orenstein