The Healthy City Partnership

On October 29th, 2014, the City of Kelowna, Interior Health Authority and the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) formally committed to improving our community's health by signing a unique, collaborative agreement: The Healthy City Partnership. Working together, each organization will leverage its resources and expertise towards the improvement of health in the Central Okanagan: the City will consider health in its policy-making and planning, Interior Health will deliver innovative health care programs and services, and UBCO will offer first-class research to inform best practices.

Analyzing the ways in which physical and mental health are inter-connected with our natural and built environments, the partnership's integrated approach allows for health to be addressed from a complex perspective. "We can't create health," explains Julie Steffler of Interior Health, "but we can create conditions that encourage healthy living and allow more people to make healthy choices." The partnership between these three highly influential and well-resourced organizations is something, in itself, to be celebrated. In the experience of Pam Moore and Julie Steffler (both from Interior Health, and both active players in the new partnership), collaboration had never really been part of the conversation about improving our community's health. This collaboration "acknowledges that we all have a responsibility towards improving the health of our citizens and our city," says Steffler, "agreeing that we can do something here is a really big piece."

Michelle Kam, Sustainability Coordinator at the City of Kelowna, agrees. "It can be difficult to collaborate within a single organization," said Kam, "never mind trying to collaborate across organizations." Thus, the City of Kelowna and Interior Health collaborated in a workshop opportunity offered by PlanH (a partnership between BC Healthy Communities Society and Healthy Families BC). The workshop, "Silos to Systems: Collaborating to Create a Healthy City Strategy for Kelowna," focused on how local policy, planning and partnerships impact community sustainability and well-being. The workshop allowed those present "to think outside the box," explained Kam, "to start fleshing out what such cross-collaboration might look like in practice."

As the workshop title suggests, much of the conversation revolved around the creation of a Healthy City Strategy document. Healthy City Strategies offer a long-term, integrated vision for improving the health and well-being of a municipality. For example, the City of Vancouver has adopted one such strategy, with the ambitious goal of creating "healthier people, healthier places, and a healthier planet." As of July 2015, Vancouver City Council had passed Phase 2 of the Strategy, outlining the general goals, the specific indicators, and the targets for the year 2025. The City of Vancouver's Healthy City Strategy won Gold in the "Excellence in Policy and Planning , City & Urban Areas" category in this year's Planning Institute of British Columbia Awards. In Kelowna, the workshop facilitated productive conversation among City of Kelowna and Interior Health staff interested in developing a similar strategic document for our municipality.

In addition to this successful workshop, within its first year, the Healthy City Partnership has engaged multiple initiatives. One example is a new outpatient rehabilitation program offered at the Parkinson Recreation Centre. In this partnership, the City provides the space and the community resources while the Interior Health Authority provides the expertise and the staff to run the program. Providing rehabilitation services outside of the hospital has significant benefits for outpatients, said Kam. Not having to return to the hospital for a rehabilitation program after having been discharged can help in a patients' recovery. The psychological association between being sick and returning to the hospital (even to attend a day program or appointment) is very strong for some people; in fact, this psychology can negatively impact patients' recovery time.

In separating treatment from the hospital environment and, instead, allowing outpatients to receive expert therapy and care while being surrounded by the bustling, social, energetic environment of the Parkinson Recreation Centre, is a great example of working together and thinking outside the box. Patients are around active, healthy people which can provide a motivating force. As Kam points out, this environmental context can be empowering for out-patients as it may transform their self-perception to one of "belonging to a healthy community."

A second initiative of the Health City Partnership is a project focused on Greenhouse Gas emissions and urban density. City planners want to know: Where do people want to live? How do they want to get around? How do we create more complete, mixed-use, neighbourhoods? These are important questions because the design of our neighbourhood affects our lifestyle, levels of physical activity, rates of obesity and chronic disease (such as depression), and levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

This initiative involves a number of UBCO professors and students, including Dr. Ross Hickey, Dr. Ahmed Idris and Dr. Rehan Sadiq. These researchers were responsible for collecting, compiling and reporting data on citizens' views related to urban density. Kelowna's municipal government can then use this data to inform their discussions and decisions on urban planning and "limited sprawl" development.

Smart city planning makes for a healthier city and healthier citizens. When people live, work, shop and play in one area, they have more opportunities to walk and bike - activities which can improve physical health. And, when people are out of cars and walking past one another they are more likely to greet their neighbours, pet dogs, and smile at children - interactions that can increase social cohesion and reduce feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. In turn, when more people walk or bike as a form of transportation, greenhouse gas emissions are lowered which improves air quality and creates a healthier environment.

Overall, the Healthy City Partnership is in its early days. Speaking to the importance of flexibility in these beginning stages, Michelle Kam summarizes the partnership as follows: "The commitment is strong and the conversations are ongoing. Right now, the idea is to do what makes sense on each project."