THE ISSUE: Healthy Public Policy

Interested in learning more about implementing Healthy Public Policy at the local government level? Join us for our Creating Healthy Public Policy Speaker Series, with events happening across 2021.

The Issue is a series of articles on Healthy Community issues and topics, written by BC Healthy Communities Staff.

What is the issue? 

The role of Healthy Public Policy in local and Indigenous governance.

Why is it important?

Healthy public policy is a powerful tool for governments to meaningfully improve the lives of their constituents. Rather than directly addressing health, these policies make changes to living conditions that impact health—such as housing, transportation and income—in order to improve a community’s health and well-being. In addition to improved health and well-being outcomes, healthy public policies often positively impact other issues directly within local government purview. Depending on the policy adopted, benefits to communities could include reduced crime rates, enhanced local economic activity and reduced demand on social services, among many others.

What does this look like through an equity lens?

When we examine issues through an equity lens, we consider: who benefits? who does not benefit, or is in fact potentially harmed? In the case of healthy public policy, this means analyzing not only whether or not a policy has positive impacts, but how those impacts are distributed. A policy that most benefits those who are most in need is more equitable than a policy that benefits everyone equally. Remember, equity is not equality. Past and present systems and social structures in our society disproportionately benefit some groups, while providing no or limited benefits to others and even sometimes leaving other groups worse off or causing them harm. Healthy public policies can reverse some of this unfairness by ensuring that the opportunity or resources a policy offers or restricts, are provided or limited to a proportionate degree. When the policy is equitable, its benefits reach community members to varying degrees in order to lessen the disparities some community members face as a result of systemic and structural injustice.

What does this mean for local governments?

A healthy community is one that provides health and well-being to all community members. Healthy public policies can act as catalysts to create or change our local environments—built, natural, social and economic—all of which influence a community’s health and well-being. Applying an equity lens when developing healthy public policy across areas of planning and governance is necessary to make sure the positive changes are felt universally in your community. For example: Active transportation policies are commonly implemented with the intention of improving physical health outcomes for community members by providing opportunities for safe modes of active travel. Lower-income communities are more likely to rely on modes of active and public transportation for access to employment opportunities and key services, yet low income neighbourhoods are often not the primary targets of active transportation infrastructure improvements. In addition, infrastructure improvements such as bike lanes and greenways can have unintended consequences such as reduced affordability due to increase in property values, resulting in unwanted displacement of lower-income residents. Applying an equity lens in this case means considering the benefits and impacts beyond physical health, and actively seeking to reduce negative social and economic impacts. Doing so both improves the living conditions of those who need it most and supports overall community well-being. For local and Indigenous governments, this means recognizing the power and opportunities you have to positively impact health equity in your community through policy change. When healthy public policies result in more benefits being distributed to those in greater need, the entire community benefits as a whole. When all community members are supported, the conditions for a safe and healthy community are created.

Where can I go to learn more?

To hear more about how your community can support health through strong public policy, get in touch with BC Healthy Communities, sign up for our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Visit the PlanH Healthy Public Policy webpage to learn more and read about examples of healthy public policies being adopted in communities across B.C. Join us throughout 2021 for the Creating Healthy Public Policy: Local Government Leaders Speaker Series, a series of talks featuring representatives from local governments across B.C. reflecting on their experience implementing healthy public policies at the local government level.

Jacob Cramer is BC Healthy Communities’ Research and Planning Assistant.

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