Many would be surprised to learn that the greatest contribution to the health of the nation over the past 150 years was made, not by doctors or hospitals, but by local governments. Our lack of appreciation of the role of our cities in establishing the health of the nation is largely due to the fact that so little has been written about it.”
Dr. Jessie Parfitt, in “Healthy cities and communities: Past present and future.” National Civic Review, Spring ‘97. Vol.86 Issue 1 p.11
While many of the forces that shape our lives today are global in nature, it is at the local government level that many of the policies and programs that most directly affect our wellbeing are made. Public health, emergency services, social services, housing, land-use planning, parks, waste management and public transportation are only some of the areas that are under local government control.
This is why local government support is an essential element for creating healthy communities. Communities that are well designed and planned generally offer a higher quality of life for their residents and are better able to attract jobs and investment. The Ontario government requires Ontario municipalities to have an Official Plan to govern how land within the municipal boundaries is to be used. These plans are reviewed every 5-10 years, and the review process includes consultation with the community.
All over the world, local governments have played an important role in the Healthy Cities/Communities movement. In Ontario, between 1996 and 2000, thirty-six municipalities passed resolutions supporting healthy communities. This paved the way to the formation of interdepartmental Healthy Communtiy committees, participation in community partnership and coalitions, and the provision of funds, staff assistance and other forms of in-kind contributions to Healthy Community projects.
Involving the community in local governance is not easy, and there are often frustrations on both sides. There are also clear benefits to both.
Municipal councillors and staff:
- gain access to the experience, knowledge and expertise within the community;
- receive a wide range of public opinion on issues;
- obtain rapid feedback on policies, plans and programs; and
- have opportunities and venues for educating the public about issues and government constraints.
- become more knowledgeable about community issues and affairs;
- increase their awareness of resources and opportunities;
- learn how their local government works;
- have a training ground from which new civic leaders can emerge;
- strengthen their voice at city hall; and
- may establish liaisons with various government advisory bodies.
As the relationship between community members and their local governments are strengthened, the sense of “us” vs. “them” tends to fall away. Through greater understanding, the sharing of responsibilities, increased accountability and collaborative activities, “us” and “them” become integrated into “we.”
However, healthy communities require more than local politicial comittment. Other essential ingredients include a thriving economy, a healthy environment, the means to meet basic needs, accesss to health and social services, opportunities for learning and skill development, supportive workplaces, and protection of the natural environment. Reaching these goals require the commitment of the provincial and federal governments as well as municipal and regional governments.
Adapted from Communities and Local Government Working Together: A resource manual: OHCC 2003