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Building a Movement for a Culture of Health

By Don Schwarz on December 16th, 2015

At one time or another, almost all of us pledge to be healthier. Eat better, exercise regularly or sleep more. But as we all know, sustaining these efforts over the long-term can prove challenging.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we’ve made our own pledge: to build a Culture of Health in America so that all of us—no matter who we are or where we live—have the opportunity to live a long and healthy life. For some of us, this might mean making healthier choices, but for others being healthier depends on the opportunities available in our communities.

Nearly a fourth of all Americans live in low-income neighborhoods where job opportunities are scarce, access to safe housing and nutritious food is poor, and pollution and crime are prevalent.

The RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America helped raise awareness of the fact that creating healthier communities is one the most important actions that we can take to improve health. In 2014, Commissioners called for changing how we revitalize neighborhoods, fully integrating health into community development.

Since then, RWJF—and in particular the team I lead here—has focused on this recommendation as part of our effort to build a Culture of Health. A critical driver of success will be sustaining this effort with our long-time partners like Active Living By Design—and also with new, nontraditional partners working in education, transportation, housing, urban planning and architecture. We see six key areas where RWJF can bring its unique skills to this effort:

Policy Development. We can support stronger policy development through programs like the Health Impact Project, an initiative that promotes health impact assessments as tools for decision makers to evaluate the potential health effects of a plan or policy before it is built or implemented.

Planning. Focused and collaborative planning can help communities address challenges like zoning to create more walkable neighborhoods or guide architects in creating healthy design features such as at the Buckingham School renovation project.

Practice. We can create opportunities for sectors to change how they approach their work. For example, we are supporting the Urban Land Institute’s development of models for reviving commercial strip centers as healthy, multi-use corridors. And our “Healthy Communities” meetings, held in partnership with the Federal Reserve, are helping health and community development practitioners better align their efforts. Engagement of financial institutions is critical for community revitalization—especially in smaller cities—as they are the leading investors in small businesses, which employ 55 percent of the workforce.

Measurement and Data. We can promote the use of measurement and data to raise awareness of community factors that shape health. The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program and life expectancy maps project with Virginia Commonwealth University are just two examples of how measurement and data can spark the conversations that drive change at the local level.

Human Capital Development. RWJF has a long history of supporting human capital development. We are now reaching out to leaders in community development, urban planning, architecture and other non-health fields to encourage them to apply a health lens to their work.  One example is our Multisector Leaders for Health effort.

Financing. Grantmaking in low-income communities can prime the pump for additional private and public sector investments. Invest Health is a new program created to do just that.

These are just a few examples of how we are working to build a movement from the grassroots to the grasstops. Our Culture of Health Prize winners embody this effort as entire communities have come together to fulfill our pledge of working to ensure that everyone in their community has the opportunity to live a longer, healthier and more productive life.

Don Schwarz

Director, Catalyzing Demand for Healthy Places & Practices

Donald Schwarz is a director leading the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s efforts to catalyze public demand for healthier people and the places in which they live, learn, work and play.