Presence Health asks West Town residents 'how can we build a healthier community?'

Presence Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center is hosting a weeklong population health-inspired Healthy Community Visioning project in Chicago's West Town neighborhood and has invited local residents, clergy, elected officials and business owners to participate in the unique collaborative process.

Between Oct. 2 and Oct. 9, Presence will conduct workshops with residents to develop a health and wellness master plan for the West Town community that aims to benefit its diverse neighborhoods. Some areas of focus for the project include how to leverage community and medical assets to grow the community, what barriers to health and wellness currently exist in West Town and how Presence Health can work with the community to align health priorities and encourage progress.

To guide the project, Presence enlisted the help of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a renowned design professional in architecture and town planning and the founder and principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. Ms. Plater-Zyberk will publically introduce the West Town Healthy Community Visioning process during the workshop's opening session on Oct. 5, as well as facilitate the sessions throughout the week.

According to Presence Health, this non-traditional planning workshop that aims to guide population health efforts is one of the first in Chicago.

Here, Presence Health's Chief Officer for Mission and External Affairs Dougal Hewitt and Ms. Plater-Zyberk discuss this population health effort.

Note: Responses were edited for length and clarity.

Question: How did the Healthy Community Visioning project in West Town come about? How did Ms. Plater-Zyberk get involved?

Dougal Hewitt: I came to Chicago most recently from Virginia, where Lizz and I worked on a community visioning project in the East End of Richmond, Va., which was quite vulnerable and challenged as a community. With Lizz's leadership, we brought the community together to talk about what it would take to make the community a healthier place. It's not always medical care that makes a place healthy — although that's obviously very important — walkability, safety, jobs and education [also] make a huge difference.

So when I came to Chicago in 2013 and joined Presence Health, I wanted to make the health system a partner in building healthier communities. The West Town community is one that is currently undergoing a lot of change and is made up of many different neighborhoods. Our health system is trying to meet everyone's needs, so we brought in Lizz to lead us through a carefully organized process that will — hopefully — unify the community in ways that will lead to new ideas about how to make it a healthier place.

Q: What are you most excited about leading up to this week-long event?

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Clearly, this city is on the move as far as adding transit. There are some great larger-scale infrastructure plans that are underway that I think we will be able to support through this visioning project. That said, before a project like this, we always try to learn as much about the area as we can. From what I've learned, there are some exciting opportunities to help the West Town neighborhoods consolidate and improve over time through a reinforcing of the residential character of these places.

One thing I look forward to is helping the different neighborhoods progress in the improvements that they seek, while also maintaining the character that makes them each unique, as well as their current affordability and accessibility.

Q: Is this West Town project indicative of a larger trend in health-influenced community design?

EPL: There is a new approach to health we are seeing and hospitals as an entity are changing in character all over the country. Some of that has to do with the natural evolution of the institution, but some of it is a result of the Affordable Care Act.

I also think there is also an understanding from the neighborhood perspective that hospitals are a positive benefit to the surrounding community. This hasn't always been the case and many neighborhoods have felt frustrated with hospitals that purchase lands for parking lots and future expansions that could otherwise have been residential. But this view is changing as hospitals increasingly look to see how they can be embedded in neighborhood life and how they can make their communities more welcoming.

DH: The ACA is pushing every healthcare organization to look at what is going to keep people well, so we have to have a greater interest in the social determinants of health. We can address these social determinants of health through building and creating better places, which is what we hope to do in West Town. I suspect and hope we'll see more healthcare organizations employ healthy community visioning as a way to harness the ideas and interests of the community members.

Q: With so many health-related concerns to consider, how should individuals involved in this visioning process such as this decide what to prioritize?

EPL: Communities are made of many entities, so part of what we do is hold many meetings with different kinds of interest groups. The thing about these interest groups is they play a huge rule in community building but, often times, they do so individually and in a separated fashion. What we try to do through the visioning process is allow and enable these groups to discuss how they can combine and coordinate resources.

For example, if the public works department has money to create a streetscape but there are environmental concerns about a lack of space for drainage, we can put these two groups together to discuss how the streetscape can improve the drainage situation while adding green space to the community. Throughout this whole process, the groups really start to imagine their community on-foot, and they can build and plan in a way that improves walkability and encourages the residents to use the community in a healthier way.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to health-influenced design in general? Do you foresee any challenges specific to conducting this visioning session with community members?

EPL: The big challenge is that for many years, Americans have seen the built environment revolve around the car as a mode of transportation. Many communities are built to convenience long-distance movement, not walking or pedestrian or local life, so we have to overcome some of these older conventions.

DH: I hate to sound cliché but the factors that challenge West Town are the same factors that provide opportunities for the community. West Town is made up of some of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, including Wicker Park, Pulaski Park, Ukrainian Village and Humboldt Park. Some are quite wealthy while others are not. West Town also represents a vast of array of ethnicities and languages, so we're publishing the materials for the project in English, Spanish, Polish and Ukrainian.

You could say that West Town is so diverse that it will make the visioning project difficult, but in fact, the richness will provide a range of opinions and ideas that we can harness effectively and positively to be the community's biggest opportunity.

Q: Where do you draw your inspiration for health-influenced design? Are there specific cities, communities or hospitals that are leading the way that you refer to?

EPL: I don't know if there is one specific place I can point to as being particularly influential. In fact, there is so much information on who is doing what in health-influenced design — both domestically and internationally — that we are constantly gleaning new ideas and building our base of cumulative knowledge. There is also a growing body of research knowledge that we can pull from for this project in West Town and all of our efforts beyond this project.

As much as healthcare itself evolves based on new evidence and scientific data, the same goes for community planning and development. It's a very exciting time.

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