Thursday, March 1, 2012

Designing Healthy Communities

As a Registered Professional Planner who has worked in both the USA and Canada my practice has been rather diverse, including urban design, active transportation, and healthy community development; so I was excited to review the new book by Dr. Richard Jackson, Designing Healthy Communities.
What people understand and care for, is what they create and defend; community development is no different.  Therefore, to influence positive change, we need to effectively communicate the needs and desires associated with healthy community design.  Throughout his book, Dr. Jackson addresses his readers in a way that does just that.  
While written as a companion to a public television documentary (see, Designing Healthy Communities stands well on its own; and citizens, professionals, and elected officials alike can benefit from this work.  Its particular value comes from the way Dr. Jackson frames the statistics and information within a witty “narrative”; in this way the Dr. connects well with readers’ intellect and emotions.  This is very important if you are seeking to influence change, because getting people to understand your subject takes the former, while getting them to care and take action, requires the later (a far more difficulty task).  
The book’s references are brought forward in a conversational manner; not at all clinical or off-putting for an average reader.  Also, the interconnectivity of this complex subject is seamlessly illustrated with examples that move from descriptions of harmful environmental features/toxins, to their impacts on health, to the overall economic costs to society.  In this way the Dr. leaves few openings for arguments against the importance of building healthy communities.  Although these local to global trajectories can sometimes become disorienting for the reader I believe they generally work well given the broad audience for this important subject.
Speaking of the highlighted case studies in the book, Dr. Jackson states “it is likely you will see pieces of your community in the stories...”.  He is correct.  The reader is drawn in and puts themselves “inside” the examples, and connections are made to things one already understands at deep and intuitive levels.  

The result is that it is an easy mental leap to adapt the Dr's positive solutions for one’s own context.  What better outcome than to present ideas in such a way that the reader effortlessly understands what is being taught while also seeing ways of integrating them into their own circumstance.
The shift in focus that happens in the third section of Designing Healthy Communities, “Be the Change You Want to See in the World”, is particularly important for the potential of Dr. Jackson’s work to influence real change in our communities.  This is a shift in focus to responsibility and action.  
The reader is given tools and strategies they can use to direct change for their communities.  These aren’t just insightful for “activists” or type-A personality citizens, these work for everyone.  In fact, I believe that the way this section is laid out and by what is presented, even well experienced professionals can learn, or at the very least, be reminded of community building, engagement, and analysis approaches that can drive positive change toward building healthier communities.  
Overall Designing Healthy Communities is a different kind of reference book, one that goes beyond informing readers; it is the kind of book that can help inspire action by illustrating tangible ways of achieving a better future for those who want to make it real.  

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