December 1, 2011

HEALing Communities: Building wellness zones in Maryland

Building the conditions for good health among the residents of the Port Towns has meant paying special attention to place.

HEALing Communities is a 5-part series that highlights Kaiser Permanente’s approach to building healthy communities through Healthy Eating Active Living collaboratives, a program developed by Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit organization.

Where we live, work and play matters to our health. People tend to live healthier lifestyles when their community supports and promotes healthy living. We can often see correlations between where people live — right down to their ZIP codes — and the incidences of preventable chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The Port Towns community in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., is an example of how place matters to health. Comprised of 4 neighboring towns — Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, Cottage City and Edmonston — the community is situated in a county where roughly half of the children ages 2 to 18 are overweight or obese, and more than 70 percent of adults are considered overweight or obese.

The reasons residents in certain communities like the Port Towns are particularly vulnerable to conditions that create ill health can be many and complex. Access to healthy food and safe physical activity play a critical role. The community setting — from economic opportunities and the physical environment to social connections and access to supportive services — all influence the health of residents. Decisions about roads, bike trails, playgrounds, recreation centers, neighborhood farmers markets, grocery stores, and schools can affect people’s surroundings and, in turn, their health.


Building wellness, ZIP code by ZIP code

Building the conditions for good health among the residents of the Port Towns has meant paying special attention to place.

It has also meant working collaboratively with residents, nonprofit organizations, schools, businesses and local and state government leaders to shape the decisions and policies that impact people’s ability to make healthy lifestyle choices.

The towns that comprise the Port Towns community first coalesced on a journey toward revitalization and sustainability in the mid-1990s. Zoning, land-use and economic development were a key focus of early revitalization efforts. By 2009, these efforts gave way to the Port Towns being designated as a Wellness Opportunity Zone, opening the door for the community to address health in a major way.

Recognizing the energy and enthusiasm for positive change that was evolving in the Port Towns, Kaiser Permanente sought to participate in a long-term effort to put health at the center of community development plans. Together with the Consumer Health Foundation, the Meyer Foundation, United Way of the National Capital Area, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the Port Towns Community Health Partnership was formed.

“This has been a true public-private collaboration involving different sectors committed to health and wellness,” said Celeste James, director of Kaiser Permanente’s community health initiatives in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

“For more than three years now, we have worked to engage residents, community and business leaders, nonprofits, and schools to build a wellness agenda that aims for change that’s measurable, sustainable and replicable,” James said.

From vision to action

This year, the vision of community health came one step closer to reality when the Port Towns Community Health Partnership awarded its first $200,000 installment of a multiyear grant to fund the work of the Port Towns Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) collaborative. Immediate strategies will focus on the following actions:

  • Improving food access through healthy retail, urban farming, school and after-school programs, and food systems policies.
  • Developing youth leaders/ambassadors for health.
  • Improving walk/bike-ability to promote outdoor, active living, and access to neighborhood parks and other community assets.
  • Further developing the Wellness Opportunity Zone to foster wellness through healthy zoning, land-use and development policies.

Early signs of progress in advancing a healthy community in the Port Towns are already taking place, from the launch of a Youth Wellness Leadership Institute to the creation of a full-scale neighborhood farm offering access to agri-job training, healthy food procurement and sustainable land practices.

“It’s a great collaborative that really exemplifies how 4 very diverse municipalities can come together to affect change,” said Ray Smith, an 18-year resident of the Port Towns community and an active participant in Port Towns Community Health Partnership.

“We have our challenges. But we are respectful of each other, we get to know each other, we support each other,” Smith said. “We may be different in our cultures, but there’s one love in this county, and we’re all working together to make it a healthy, nurturing place.”