The Growing Links Between Health and Communities

By Jessica Osborne

I am hopelessly in love with cities and the stories they tell.  In my senior year at Colorado College, I spent the fall semester with a team of students and facilitators in Chicago, focused on Urban Studies. Together, we explored its public systems: schools, parks and recreation, safety, housing, and my favorite of them all, transportation.  For the purposes of historical context, my family has called Colorado home for several generations, and after my excursion “abroad”, I was eager to return.  I love it here, but those countless moments of lucidity in my Hyde Park apartment no longer allowed me to regard my high desert existence through the same lens.  Even now, I yearn for that undeniably distinct sense of place, and to feel as deeply connected to it as Chicagoans do.  That being said, I have no plans to relocate to the Windy City.  Way too cold for my Colorado sensibilities, and not enough sky.

Later that winter as I was writing my thesis, I moved through my brief experience there.   Scampering up the stairs to the El platform, late to class and barely getting through the closing train doors, walking down neighborhood streets thick with fallen leaves, coffee shops and karaoke bars next to neat rows of brick homes. The people around me who helped negotiate foreign circumstances, and connected me to experiences that moved me at times to tears, and later to action.  I learned Chicago best through its inhabitants and their daily rituals that for a moment were also mine.

And the undeniably raw beauty of the city is ubiquitous.  The wisdom of communities who protected their children, elders, and their vulnerable, those who celebrated their stories, and loved their streets, and those who didn’t.  The startling dichotomy of pride and disinvestment could vary by any given block I happened to walk through.

I subsequently earned dual Masters Degrees in Urban and Regional Planning and Urban Design and a certificate in Historic Preservation.  I studied in Rome, and continue to travel, always fascinated by how people define place. After years of working in local government as a strategic planner, and a brief sojourn into consulting for a planning and design firm, my career is in public health, refining the connections that link the built environment to population-based health and well-being.  The linkages between the two concepts converge in elegant ways as my perspective and understanding grows. My awareness of how our country and state is impacted by obesity and chronic disease demands action, and I am determined to fix the broken system that inadequately supports the health and well-being of people.  I want people to access great places that inspire and also improve their health.

I believe how we choose to define our wellness is inextricably linked to where and how we live.  Place making can begin as an intricate system of bureaucratic checks and balances, decisions made on paper, soberly judged by a standard we collectively agree upon.  Or it could be organic and spontaneous, authentic, and original. My colleague in public health often poses this question: What we design and build will inevitably have an impact on our health.  The question is what kind of an impact would you like to have?

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Jessica Osborne is an urban planner and designer working for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, linking the built environment to health for communities across the state

By | 2010-12-03T08:40:20+00:00 December 3, 2010|Categories: Healthy Communities, Sustainability|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. James Mejia December 3, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Jessica – Profound observations above. I am a big believer in the positive effect the built environment can have on our health as a city. I would appreciate a conversation if you have a moment.

    • Jessica Osborne December 3, 2010 at 11:36 pm

      Hi James, thank you for your considerate comments. I wholeheartedly agree with you, and think now is the time for us to collectively step away from pointing fingers and blaming someone or something else for the “problems” we’re facing. Instead, I respond to that by posing that we seek a solutions based approach. I’m interested in the future opportunities we have for making places that respond to communities and support our health, not the past mistakes we all collectively contributed to in our built environment. If we move forward with the approach that every challenge we face is an opportunity for doing it better, and if we have strategic partners representing a multi-disciplinary range of skills and stakeholders from the communities we’re working/living/playing in, we’re going to tackle this issue with grace, foresight, and wisdom.

  2. Chris from Downtown December 3, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I liked this post very much. Conversations about the American obesity epidemic usually focus on diet and exercise. Those are obviously important, but we need to hear more about the impact of infrastructure and urban planning on public health. My view is informed by time spent living in or near Boston, Montréal, London, and Taipei. In these cities, where walkable neighborhoods are connected by rapid, underground, fixed-rail transit, it’s less imperative for people to get in their cars and drive to the gym.

    In the U.S. today, there is at least some support for building mass transit, and there is some interest in improving public health. These can be mutually supportive. I’d like to hear that argument from our political leadership at any level — our new mayor, or our new governor, maybe?

    • Jessica Osborne December 3, 2010 at 11:46 pm

      Chris, you’re right, and it’s not that easy to just blame the individual behavior for the crisis we’re facing. It’s a bit of the “yes, and” approach I like to pose to people. Yes, I need to take responsibility for my personal health, watch my diet, get physical activity. And I need my community to help me make the healthy choices the easy choices. I need a sidewalk to walk on so I don’t get hit by a car if I choose to walk to work. I need a safe place to ride my bike, and by doing this, I’m decreasing the pollutants in the air, getting a ride in, and loosening the congestion on the road by not adding my car to the mix today. I need places to walk/ride/bus to that are worth the effort. I need to feel safe in my neighborhood so my kids will play in the park. (Ok, my nephew and niece- I don’t possess any personally!) I want healthy food options I can easily access and afford to buy. Our communities don’t categorically provide that type of systemic support to the people that live there. One of my next blogs will look at this issue in more depth, and I challenge the assumption of personal responsibility with the hope that someday soon we have an answer to how the built environment we live in supports our collective goals for healthy eating and active living. Love to find out how our new governor will support me in this profoundly rewarding work!

  3. Rebekah Kik December 6, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Thank you very much for the passion you have expressed in your blog. I find your words inspiring and renewing.

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