The 8 Elements of a Healthy Community, Part 2
Last month I began a description of eight key elements necessary for a community to be healthy. When considered together, these elements give a holistic assessment of the overall wellbeing of a neighborhood. You can think of them as eight different lenses through which to view the whole picture of a neighborhood, beyond what you can see by driving the streets. Or imagine taking a neighborhood in for a checkup where the doctor looks at these eight things to gauge its health. That’s what this list is for. In many ways, seven of these elements rely on the eighth more than the others; mutually-enhancing relationships are foundational. After all, if neighbors don’t know the people living around them, it’s not a community. It’s just a cluster of houses. Above that foundation are these other aspects that influence every neighborhood’s stability and quality of life.
Last month I began with these four elements: (1) mutually-enhancing relationships, (2) safety, (3) leadership, and (4) a culture of caring. This month I’ll wrap up the list with the second half.
5. Meaningful work
Let’s break this one down in the obvious way. First, work. Finding any employment is a challenge. Although Abilene’s overall unemployment rate is lower than the national average, parts of North Abilene’s “urban core” experiences unemployment at over 3 times the national average. Second, meaningfulness. Finding meaning in your work doesn’t require you to have your dream job. It simply means that you have employment in which you can see your contribution as valuable. Some might not think having meaning in your work is nearly as important as just having the job. However, finding meaning and being appreciated for your contribution are major factors in sticking with a job. So then in terms of a family’s stability—and therefore, a community’s stability—finding some level of meaning in your job is a notable piece of a neighborhood’s well-being.
It should come as no surprise that the health of individuals greatly impacts the health of a community. Entire city offices and public programs are dedicated to public health. When it comes to assessing a particular neighborhood’s needs, there are various chronic issues such as diabetes, obesity or addictions that may be above average and need to be addressed. But beyond this, a good assessment also takes into account access to affordable healthcare options, especially if a high number of neighbors are uninsured.
There are all sorts of interesting data out there regarding education within a community. For example, anyone can look up graduation rates down to the census block. There is much more to education than just the percentage of neighbors who finished high school, though. A big part of a community’s quality of life is the quality of education in neighborhood schools, as well as parental involvement in their children’s schools. Then beyond the schools, there are bigger questions about real-world education. Do adults know how to manage money, use a bank, and save for large expenses? Do homeowners know how to perform basic maintenance on their homes? All these things are pieces of what it means for a neighborhood to be "educated."
8. Adequate housing
I saved this one for last because—much like relationships—it weaves through all the others. On the most basic level, the physical building blocks of a neighborhood are its houses. The state of those houses is what forms how people perceive the area (both residents and non-residents). It also affects who lives in those houses, the residents' health & safety, and even the likelihood of them stepping up as leaders. You can look at the "adequacy" of housing in a few different ways. First, let’s look at the neighborhood-wide level. In the best case scenario, a neighborhood has housing options for families of various income levels. This helps ensure that neighborhoods do not get overlooked or fall into decline the way high-poverty areas can. Research also indicates that, when coupled with support programming, job training, and other social services, adequate housing might even help lift families out of poverty.
Second, let’s scale down to individual homes. Many houses in our area are in need of repair. Fortunately for Abilene, there are resources available for certain types of home repair, both public and charitable. But connecting families to those resources takes time and effort. Plus, I wonder if even those resources are adequate to address the number of repairs needed. In a survey that our staff conducted of 829 homes in College Heights, 242 (29%) were dilapidated, their conditions ranging from needs-new-paint to boarded-up-and-condemned. About three-fourths of those are rental properties. Which brings me to one last thing about housing.
Let’s look at the hard numbers of homeownership within a neighborhood. The homeownership rate is the percentage of owner-occupied homes as opposed to rental properties (vacancies don’t count). The national average homeownership rate is 63.5%. Meanwhile, most of central North Abilene is well below that, ranging from 33-68%. So who cares how many rental properties there are? Well, for one thing, homeownership can increase the rate of high school graduation by as much as 10% for low-income families. There is a host of other correlated benefits as well.
As I pointed out in part one, all these elements are necessary for a community to be healthy and whole. There are all different ways to look at a holistic assessment. But when it’s time for improvement, where do you start? We believe it starts by building relationships, by listening to neighbors for their input on what improvements are a priority. From there, you can start the process of implementing creative solutions like conversing with city officials, raising up leaders, incentivizing financial literacy, increasing voter registration, or something else we just haven't dreamed up yet. This is why CCC coordinators “relocate” into the neighborhood. We believe that is the best way to learn what a community needs and discover solutions. We believe those particular people are worth having as neighbors. We believe that community is worth investing in—no matter how you look at it.