What role do walkable streets play in our health? What about safe sidewalks, plentiful parks, or accessible transit? How we move through the world has a big impact on health outcomes—and our built environment has a big impact on how we move through the world.
Since 2017, most of the Health Fund’s Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles work has been focused on supporting individual-level interventions, including behavior change. Moving forward, we can do more to sustain these healthy behaviors by addressing environmental and societal structures. In addition to addressing nutrition and lifestyle challenges through our standard programmatic approach, we’re prioritizing built environment projects in our 2023 grant round.
A sustainable framework: the built environment
The built environment includes the physical makeup of where we live, learn, work, and play, which includes our schools, streets, sidewalks, and open spaces. Research confirms that the built environment influences overall community health and individual behavior such as physical activity and healthy eating. And safe and walkable communities are associated with a lower prevalence of obesity and lower cardiovascular disease risk.
Furthermore, research on the connections between the built environment and health has shown that the burden of illness is worse for people living in poverty, minority populations, and those with physical disabilities. Understanding these ties between socioeconomic inequity and health is essential to reducing health disparities.
We’re also asking potential grantees to consider these engagement concepts as they design projects and submit proposals for funding.
For example, supporting the community engagement component of a region or community’s master plan can ensure that health considerations are represented throughout the process, resulting in features that support better health such as walking paths, parks, and recreational areas. Incorporating built environments in our strategy and upcoming grant round is more likely to lead to sustainable results and a lasting impact.
This approach also aligns with the Healthy People 2030 framework, which casts lack of physical activity opportunities, which are often the product of unsafe and unplanned built environments, as social determinants of health. Healthy People 2030 is a nationwide program that seeks to promote, strengthen, and evaluate the nation’s efforts to improve the health of all people, and has been adopted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
How we’re already doing this
In 2022, we made a few grants to help communities shape the influence of the built environment on nutrition and physical activity. Below are some examples of projects that were supported within the 2022 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles grant round:
Community Building for a Healthier Flint and Genesee County
Crim Fitness Foundation, $468,799
The lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in Flint impedes physical activity and limits access to healthy foods. For this project, Crim Fitness Foundation (The Crim) is conducting community engagement, zoning code education and advocacy, and research on dangerous traffic conditions.
Cade Surface, program manager at The Crim, says the project will help “residents and city leaders to learn how to advocate for zoning changes” and provide the opportunity to “increase access to all parts of our city regardless of a resident’s access to an automobile.” Surface explains that these activities have the potential to lead to “powerful, long-term, sustainable results and measurable changes for how people are able to move throughout their neighborhoods.”
Ultimately, the grant is helping the community realign infrastructure in support of Flint residents’ physical, social, and economic health.
Pontiac STEPS that Support Active Living
Oakland University, $250,000
This program addresses environmental conditions that prevent Pontiac residents from living active lifestyles. Following decades of disinvestment and decreasing tax revenue due to low property values and a decreasing population, Pontiac parks fell into an extreme state of disrepair. Efforts to add new equipment were haphazard and barely made a dent in the larger problem of blighted parks. Utilizing a collaborative framework, the Pontiac community will embark on a community-driven process of park site planning.
Dr. Jennifer Lucarelli, associate professor at Oakland University, explained that “while it’s exciting to see a new playground structure or basketball court being built, the lengthy planning process that must take place beforehand is often overlooked.” She says the interactive, community-centered visioning process supported in part by the Health Fund will result in a site plan that helps “estimate the actual cost and raise matching funds for construction, critical for cities like Pontiac with limited budgets.”
The Health Fund doesn’t make grants for physical assets such a playgrounds, parks, or walking trails. Instead, we’re focused on community-driven, systemic approaches to improving built environments. For example, we might fund:
- Developing zoning incentives in underserved communities to promote walkable neighborhoods and improve land use patterns as a means of combating obesity.
- Supporting parks and recreation departments in integrating active design strategies for community playgrounds, creating active play spaces for children and families.
- Developing non-motorized transportation plans.
- Implementing engagement strategies to increase community input into walkability plans.
We’ll be looking to fund projects that emphasize partnerships with communities to create lasting change. We’ll also prioritize populations impacted by historical inequities, including communities of color and rural communities in Michigan.
Our upcoming grant round opens in early March. To be alerted when we post the RFP, subscribe to our newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest Health Fund news.
Have questions? We are here to connect and engage with you to discuss your ideas before applying for funding. Contact Dr. Tayo Moss by email at email@example.com or by phone at (734) 552-9294 to start the conversation.