We are the neighbourhood: citizen participation and cross-domain health policy for a healthy living environment

Due to an accumulation of several societal ills  - such as poor health, poverty, illiteracy and inadequate housing - many people may find themselves in a vulnerable situation. Despite decades of trying to eradicate health disparities among different socioeconomic strata, it appears that people with a lower socioeconomic status continue to face persistent health disadvantages compared to those with a higher socioeconomic status. Against this background, the paradigm of preventive health policy has shifted from a sole focus on diminishing health disparities towards unlocking health potential. Here, the importance of a healthy living environment is increasingly being underscored and recognized as vital. That is, both the physical as social living environment are of importance to our health.

Additionally, we have seen a major shift in the relationship  between citizen and government in which citizen participation is perceived as essential. Research has shown that citizen initiatives are able to contribute to the quality of life, for example by organizing clean-up events, starting a local vegetable garden or a community center. In other words, citizen initiatives are capable of nurturing a healthy living environment. Citizen initiatives are, however, incredibly diverse in nature. Not only in their ambitions, but also in size, organizational structure or lifespan. How are local government expected to deal with these initiatives and what are the correct ways to support and facilitate them?

In the midst of these societal changes, the project ‘we are the neighborhood’ (Wij zijn de Wijk) has been created. It is a collaboration between three municipalities (Arnhem, Ede and Wageningen), Wageningen University, professionals and citizens organizations. The overarching aim is to properly support and facilitate citizen initiatives which contribute to a healthy living environment by using interdisciplinary / cross-domain policy. The project spans four years – 2021 until 2025 - and has been divided into five phases.

  1. A.) Analyzing health-related municipal policy in order to find out how health potential is operationalized, how interdisciplinary collaboration takes place and finally, how policies are supposed to be implemented at the neighborhood-level. B). Creating a map on which the current citizen initiatives are represented.
  2. Gaining insights about the actual implementation of health-related policy in the neighborhood. Here we will conduct semi-structured interviews with policymakers, professionals and members of citizen initiatives. This leads to knowledge about the cooperation and communication between different actors such as municipality, neighborhood actors and citizens.
  3. Here, we aim to identify the possibilities and opportunities for a healthy living environment. Together with residents we will localize, recognize and emphasize those assets which already, or may have a valuable contribution to a healthy neighborhood.
  4. By  combining prior results, we will identify opportunities and obstacles which citizens and policy makers experience in respectively the daily affairs of a citizen initiatives or the implementation of policy.  
  5. In the final phase of the project, we will organize both learning sessions with all of our consortium partners as workshops with the municipality. By learning from each other, our aim is to translate the findings into resourceful ways to properly support and facilitate citizen initiatives through cross-domain policy.

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