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Welcome to Health Within Reach: Talking about Place Matters

Anyone involved in public health in Oregon is familiar with the idea that “place matters,” shorthand for how the social conditions in which we live affect our health. These conditions are key to reducing the physical and financial toll of chronic disease on our state. Public health isn’t alone in this conversation—far from it. Oregonians representing a wide range of professions and passions have long known how place matters to people’s lives and well-being. Recently I’m hearing this civic conversation growing louder and helping to shape our places in ways that prioritize health.

These wide-ranging voices were the animating force of our most recent Place Matters Oregon (PMO) conference in Portland. The 500-plus attendees and speakers went far beyond the folks you might expect at a public heath gathering, to include land use planners, teachers, affordable housing advocates, transportation officials, community activists, state legislators, a library director and conservationists.

This diverse mix was evidence that all kinds of Oregonians are recognizing that place matters to our health and our state—but the conversations didn’t end with the conference. They are happening in your workplaces, your kids’ schools, your neighborhood association meetings, in city council meetings and at the State Legislature.

The conversations also are happening here, at Health Within Reach, a new blog that aims to highlight and foster discussion about the connections between place and chronic disease in Oregon, the impact on our state, and the many individuals and organizations who are working on solutions.

In my role as manager of the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention section, part of the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division, I’m launching Health Within Reach to inform and motivate the many Oregonians who already care about these issues. More than that, I hope this blog will spark reflection and discussion among Oregonians who don’t work in public health settings about the many ways in which health nonetheless runs through their work, activism and community life.

In that vein, the PMO conference featured a broad array of Oregon people and professions giving voice to how place matters in our state and proving that the way we talk about chronic disease is evolving for the better:

  • It remains true that individual choices—to eat well, avoid tobacco, stay active—play a big role in how healthy we are. But as conference speaker Molly Haynes of Kaiser Permanente Northwest pointed out, awareness is growing that place matters, too. Social determinants—the safety of our neighborhoods, for example, or access to nutritious food and physical activity—carry tremendous weight.
  • The people who design our streets, plan our transportation systems and build our homes know as much as anyone about the power of place. More and more, they are building health into their blueprints in ways that benefit individuals and the larger community, as Matt Crall of the Oregon Department of Land and Conservation Development and Scotty Ellis of the Coalition for a Livable Future explained.
  • Communities also are weaving health promotion and chronic disease prevention into every facet of public life, from our schools to our workplaces to our parks and campgrounds. Conference attendees heard from Shane MacRhodes of Eugene-Springfield Safe Routes to Schools and Tony DeFalco of Portland’s Living Cully project—two examples among many.
  • The movement isn’t limited to Oregon, as Heather Wooten of ChangeLab Solutions and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group made clear. “Place matters” is a hot topic from Oregon to Chicago to Canada, where citizens are using the power of collective action to make their communities healthier for everyone.

I know we all lead busy lives. It’s challenging to carve out time to do more. But I hope you’ll consider joining me from time to time to dive into these conversations, here at Health Within Reach and also on social media, including @PlaceMattersOR on Twitter.

Tune in. Talk about what you hear. Because place matters—and your voice matters, too.

Curious about a chronic disease topic you’d like to see covered here? Interested in writing a guest blog? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below.

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