Guest column: What makes a ‘livable’ community?

March 21, 2024

By Matthew Madsen, Research Associate II at the Western Transportation Institute

That answer may be different for just about everyone. A “livable” community could be access to health care and education, or a community that embraces differences and makes space for all. It could be access to affordable housing, or transportation that is safe for all users. It could mean clean drinking water and air, or access to parks and open spaces. No matter how we look at it, everyone has the right to live in a community where people can thrive, grow, and live healthy lives.

In public health work, we refer to these conditions as the Social Determinants of Health. According to Healthy People 2023, “the Social Determinants of Health are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” These conditions play a significant role, almost 50%, in an individual’s health.

The incorporation of health priorities into planning, development, and policy documents is not a new idea. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been working to improve the health of individuals and communities around the world for decades. However, health and health priorities are not always integrated into planning, development, and policy and to get there takes time. Building livable communities requires collaboration between a wide range of community stakeholders including businesses, nonprofits, developers, health professionals, educators, and decision-makers because each brings unique perspectives, and creative solutions, to the table.

Over the past year and a half, the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) has worked with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, Gallatin County, HRDC/Streamline, Bozeman Health, Eagle Mount, developers, businesses, decision-makers, educators, and community partners to develop and implement the Gallatin Valley Building Livable Communities project. The goal of the project is to bring together professionals from different sectors and disciplines to educate and collaborate on the inclusion of health in planning, development, and policy. By collaboratively developing a shared understanding of the Social Determinants of Health, we are laying a foundation for conversations about creative and needed solutions to improve health in the Gallatin Valley and beyond.

By focusing on health as a factor before planning, development, and policy decisions are made, we are integrating individual and community health into decisions to build a livable community where people can be healthy and thrive. The Building Livable Communities project will be conducting community trainings and other engagement opportunities over the next year. If you are interested in learning more, please reach out via email to Matthew Madsen.

Please note the views expressed by the author are not meant to represent the views of Montana State University.

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