Trevor Hancock: Building healthier communities in B.C.

I owe my friends and colleagues at B.C. Healthy Communities an apology, because in two years of writing this column I have not written about the wonderful work they do. That, regrettably, is the problem of having a columnist as your vice-president.

While a column is of course a bully pulpit, an opportunity to put forward ideas, critique the status quo, recognize good work and stir up debate, it is — at least in my view — a bit of a conflict of interest to promote one’s personal interests. Hence my reluctance to write about and promote an organization where I have such strong ties.

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But that really is not fair to BCHC, hence this column.

Thirty years ago, I helped create the now-global Healthy Cities and Communities movement and have been involved with it ever since. In Ontario in the late 1980s, I led the process to create the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition, which I am glad to say is still going strong 27 years later. And in B.C., where a provincial healthy-communities program had come and gone in the early 1990s, I helped to re-establish it in 2005.

So what is a healthy community, anyway? When I co-authored with Len Duhl in 1986 the background paper for the European Healthy Cities program of the World Health Organization, we made three key points: Our focus is health in the broadest sense, more akin to human development; we see it as a never-ending journey on which we are always striving to become more healthy; and we recognize that everything in the community affects our health.

In the first few years, we learned that success seemed to depend upon four key strategies: Gain political leadership of the process (mayor and council), engage stakeholders from many different sectors (public, private, non-profit, faith, academic, etc.), involve community members and organizations at every step in the process, and develop public policies at the municipal level that are good for health.

But B.C. Healthy Communities in particular has taken this work both broader and deeper (and I claim no credit for this). For one thing, they have explicitly added asset-based community development to the four strategies we identified. Even the most disadvantaged communities have strengths, capacities and assets; our aim should not be to build capacity, as if none existed, but to identify and then build on the capacity that is already there.

But much more than that, and with crucial support from the McConnell Family Foundation’s Innoweave program, BCHC has created a sophisticated theory of change that is applied in all their work. They recognize that communities are complex systems and are grappling with complex issues.

They note that “traditional, siloed approaches to making progress on tough social and ecological issues are not working” and that short-term linear thinking fails to address the root causes of the challenges we face. Instead, we need systems thinking and collaboration across sectors, and the openness and flexibility to learn and adapt as we go along.

So they have adopted a strategy of “seed, grow and harvest.” First, they seek (or are sought out by) “change-makers,” people or organizations in communities who are ready to or are starting to make changes that will help the community be healthier in whatever area the community thinks is important. They then “seed the field by providing learning and connecting opportunities that introduce more people to innovative ways of thinking about and working on complex community issues.”

The next stage is to grow and deepen the impact through action-based learning and coaching that BCHC convenes and facilitates. The final stage is to “harvest” the learning about how to create positive change in a community and spread the learning to other communities across B.C.

BCHC manages the PlanH program in partnership with the province’s HealthyFamilies B.C. initiative, supporting “local government engagement and partnerships across sectors for creating healthier communities.” They also address a wide range of issues, including age-friendly and child-friendly communities, municipal alcohol policy, climate change, ecologically sustainable rental housing, and many varieties of community engagement and community-building.

Check out the website ( and get involved in making your community more healthy.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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