Place Matters

Exploring ways to create community-driven solutions to local challenges

Posted by Katie Harr, MPH

In public health, we have seen more and more evidence that your zip code matters more to your health than your genetic code. One illustrative example comes from our own backyard, Chicago. A transit map shows that where you’re born can mean a shorter life expectancy of up to 16 years within just a few miles between Green Line stops.

The Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health studies the social determinants of health. Its “Mapping Life Expectancy” project built upon work by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America, and released this and other maps in 2015–2016.

So, place matters a lot. Yet many children and their families live in social, economic, and physical environments that undermine their ability to live their fullest, healthiest lives. These challenging community conditions take many forms: unsafe housing, lack of green space, poor air and water quality, inadequate transportation, limited job opportunities and violence to name a few. Even though these types of conditions exist across the country, we know that each community is unique with its own distinct blend of strengths, challenges, and vision for the future.

That’s why Raising Places focuses on where children and families live, learn, and play. This means that instead of working on the national, county, or even city level, Raising Places will partner with local communities on a smaller scale. We’ll leverage a labs-based, human-centered design process to move beyond diagnosing problems to developing actionable solutions that are customized to six local communities across the country.

Raising Places team members explore the impact that place has on health.

As we get ready to launch our Raising Places labs, we continue to explore questions about how we can go beyond business as usual to generate solutions that address the powerful influence place has on health and well-being.

Among the questions we ask ourselves: What are communities doing to create healthy places for kids and families? How does focusing on local context change the solutions that people create to address challenges?

Our exploration recently brought us to the 2017 EverThrive Illinois annual conference — an exciting day of learning, listening, and connecting with people committed to promoting healthy communities and advancing the health of women, children, and families across Illinois. There, we got to talk about Raising Places alongside two organizations that are already working to promote the health of children and communities:

  • Gardeneers is a community-based organization in Chicago whose mission is to empower students to connect with healthy food through experiential, garden-based learning. It provides full-service support to 25 school gardens serving more than 1500 students in underserved neighborhoods throughout Chicago.
  • East Side Aligned is a collective impact process that involves the development of a community-wide out-of-school time system that presents a promising approach to sustainable child and youth well-being. This work ultimately seeks to improve outcomes for kids including: academic success, physical health, social-emotional well-being, and youth leadership.

Each of our programs use very different intervention models and have different focuses, yet we are all committed to working in ways that reflect the unique experiences of the communities we serve. As it turns out, we also have a lot in common in how we do our work — starting with alignment and iteration.

Here’s what we learned in our time together.

Alignment isn’t always easy, but not impossible

With Raising Places, the core of our work will be helping local teams identify and align around a shared vision for what it takes to create healthier places where children and families can thrive. To do this, we will use human-centered design principles — among them being flexible, and remaining open to learning and change — to help create a common ground among people from diverse backgrounds and turn ideas into action.

Alignment is also key to the collective impact model used by East Side Aligned. There, a group of local providers came together through the Out of School Time Initiative to ensure resources are maximized in ways that better serve East St. Louis youth. One of the ways they set out to do this was to develop a shared measurement system for tracking data and evaluating their programs. Dan Schober, program evaluator and founder of Informed Community Health, leads evaluation on the project. He described how bringing providers together to align on shared measures, aggregate data, and document work wasn’t always easy. Even creating a shared attendance database proved to be a heavy lift. But the providers’ commitment to a collective impact model and willingness to be flexible has helped them to create a system of shared measures and data collection that allows them to make effective, data-driven decisions and learn together.

Iteration helps programs adapt to local contexts

Human-centered design is built on the practice of iteration in order to learn about what local solutions best meet the needs of end-users. Rather than launching a single idea, local teams in our Raising Places communities will create and test multiple ideas through quick cycles of production, feedback, and revision.

For Gardeneers, iteration is a way of adapting their program to respond to the needs of the diverse Chicago neighborhoods where its gardens and programming are located. Gardeeners executive director and co-founder May Tsupros told us the organization looked very different three years ago when it was founded than it does today. That’s because Gardeeners is committed to deep listening and learning from communities and kids with whom they work. This has meant iterating on their model and creating local adaptations for each Chicago neighborhood they serve — from the types of food grown, to garden design, to the demographics of garden leaders who they recruit with intention. Providing programming that is truly responsive to each neighborhood sometimes means going back to the to the drawing board. And they believe that is a good thing.

The takeaway

Developing solutions that are community-driven and rooted in local context requires alignment and iteration. Underlying these ideas is the need for deep community engagement — understanding the experiences of community residents and co-creating solutions with them.

Through Raising Places, we’ll learn a lot through our work with local teams to use these and other human-centered design principles to envision new ideas and translate them into practical, tangible improvements for their community. Because every Raising Places community will be different, we’re excited to see how we can customize the labs process to each local context, and how each community creates uniquely relevant solutions to common challenges.

We invite you to follow along with Raising Places as we get ready for our work with local communities, and continue to share ideas and insights that we gather along the way.


Katie Harr is a research fellow on the Raising Places project at Greater Good Studio. An accomplished public health professional, Katie brings deep experience from work with nonprofits, public agencies and academic institutions on collaborative initiatives that foster innovative approaches to creating healthy communities.