Helping Mid-Sized Cities Think Big About Health

Jan 13, 2016, 2:00 PM, Posted by Donald Hinkle-Brown

A new initiative will empower mid-sized cities across the U.S. to develop strategies for increasing private and public investments to improve neighborhoods facing the biggest barriers to better health.

Runners along a New Orleans city park

Cincinnati, Ohio. Flint, Michigan. New Orleans, Louisiana. Springfield, Massachusetts. The names of many of America’s mid-sized cities are woven into the fabric of our national consciousness.

Others are less well known: Broken Arrow, Arizona. Pasco, Washington. Taylorsville, Utah.

Famed or not, cities boasting populations of 50,000 to 400,000 are where most Americans live. Mid-sized cities can be great places for a healthy, rewarding life. Many have a strong sense of community and history, with less hustle and bustle and traffic and lower cost of living than big cities.

But even in places where quality of life is generally good, not everyone benefits equally. All together, more people live in poverty in America’s mid-sized cities than in large metro areas. Even the most storied of these cities have neighborhoods facing some of the nation’s deepest challenges. And many such cities have suffered economic depression for decades.

My organization, Reinvestment Fund, works closely with cities to use data to better understand the needs of their most at-risk neighborhoods — and then invest in new initiatives that can revitalize housing, health, transportation, education, and other assets that help communities become stronger and healthier. Now, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we want to help dozens of mid-sized cities think big about ways they can improve health in their most underserved neighborhoods.

To do that, we’ve launched Invest Health, which is giving 50 mid-sized cities $60,000 each to start to map out the kinds of changes they want to make.

Working Across Sectors

One way to think big is to build a big tent. Each city’s Invest Health team will be made up of five people from different sectors: city planning or public health, community development or finance, healthcare or academia, and two other sectors of the city’s choice.

We’re promoting cross-sector collaboration because many factors influence people’s health: where they live, where they work or go to school, the safety of their neighborhoods, the ease with which they can get around. But in cities today, developing communities and improving health most often happen on separate tracks. We want it to become business as usual for cities to look at neighborhood and economic development opportunities through the lens of health outcomes.

We also think collaboration is important because municipal staff in smaller cities have more than enough tasks to juggle. They have broader job descriptions and responsibilities than their peers in big cities, and much less support. They need as many collaborative partners as possible.

‘Only so Many L.A.s’

The Invest Health teams will have a mentor to guide them through the process of studying the problems they want to solve and coming up with forward-thinking solutions. As we’re helping teams formulate their plans, we’re not going to forget what makes them unique.  There’s a lot to learn from larger metropolitan areas about aligning housing, transit, and commercial development into healthier configurations. But smaller places need their own, tailored solutions.

There are only so many L.A.s, but if we can figure out solutions for, say, Bakersfield or Birmingham, those will be far more transferable to similarly sized cities.

Some communities awarded Invest Health grants may be early gems that have already taken the first steps toward improving health for all residents. For example, the communities honored with the Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize, many of them mid-sized cities, have made inroads in building alliances and making changes for the better.

Other cities may be at the very beginning of their work to invest in health in underserved neighborhoods. Our challenge will be to build relationships so they have allies and early leads on how to fund their plans. The more support they get early on, the larger they can grow their visions and plans for realizing a healthier future for all their citizens.

So here’s a call to everyone reading this who is from a mid-sized city: Whether your city is just embarking on its journey to better health or well on its way, a part of the national lexicon or a lesser-known gem, we look forward to hearing from you and working together to create more and more places where everyone has a chance to live the healthiest life possible.

See the full list of 50 cities selected for Invest Health.

Donald Hinkle-Brown is the President and CEO of the Reinvestment Fund. Read his full bio.