Making a Healthy Sense of Place

By Chris Allen

In the foreword to The Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People, published by the Michigan Municipal League, author Peter Kageyama writes,“Place shapes us. Place defines us. Place is what forms our identities, our attitudes, and our relationships. … No longer is it sufficient to build places that are merely functional and safe. Our place making aspirations must be as high and as grand as our economic goals because they are bound together.”

Many of us were introduced to the term “place matters” in the PBS landmark documentary, Unnatural Causes. Where you live often reflects how well you live. Social determinants that are beyond your control, such as unsafe communities and environmental pollution, create conditions that affect public health.

“Place matters” and “place making” sound similar, but there is a subtle difference: One focuses on the impact of the built and natural environment, among other social determinants, on the well-being of people. The other seeks to design environments that are attractive and promote urban vitality. Both are concerned with creating a healthy sense of place. What’s missing in the latter is people.

The Michigan Municipal League identifies eight essential assets that make communities vibrant places in the 21st century:

Physical Design and Walk ability

Green Initiatives

Cultural Economic Development



Messaging and Technology



I would argue that one of the greatest assets of any place is healthy, productive people. The eight essential assets identified by the Michigan Municipal League are essential to an economically vital community and the health of the population. Health, and the innovative ways of creating health — a timeless measure of wealth — is the ninth element.

Few would disagree that an attractive, “livable” urban region is desirable to those who live and work there and those who may be considering relocating there. But would a community be considered “livable” if a significant portion of its population suffered from chronic disease, that it’s infants died at a rate comparable to some developing countries, that its elderly live lives of quiet desperation?

Safe, well-designed streetscapes; clean air and water, parks, green initiatives and accessible public spaces, diversity, literacy, job creation — it’s all part of the broad definition of healthy communities, because it encourages exercise, reduces health and injury risk, reduces stress, and promotes social connection.

Rather than place making in the absence of community health, let’s look at the economic impact  of a healthier community: High maternal and child health results in better educational performance and reduced inclination to pursue crime. Reduced chronic disease and substance abuse improves job readiness and performance. Healthier elderly people, who are more mobile and remain contributing to our society longer, would not only be more humane but it would reduce health costs in a big way.

We must have economic development, and we must create more aesthetically pleasing places to live, work, and recreate, in order retain our best and brightest and recruit new talent. But economic development alone will not create a vital, healthy community for all. In fact, economic development may create unintended consequences, such as air, water, and noise pollution. That’s why we advocate for introducing a “health lens” in reviewing economic development projects.

Health is often the missing element in the place making conversation. Place matters for all of us. Place making, in the context of promoting health and well-being, should not create just an aesthetically pleasing feeling. It should create a place that develops healthy people and represent all segments of the population in order for the community to truly emerge with a healthy sense of place.

 Chris Allen is the CEO of Detroit Wayne County Health Authority. This blog is drawn from a speech delivered to the Downriver Delta Legislative Briefing in Ecorse, Michigan, May 16, 2014.