Are you a soloist or do you consider yourself a collaborative person? When you exercise, is your instinct to call a friend to walk with you through the park, or do you prefer a tranquil yoga session in the privacy of your home? If you live in one of five communities chosen to participate in the “Way to Wellville” challenge, your answer to these simple questions may be key to both your health and financial welfare. A social experiment designed by tech investor Esther Dyson, Wellville is intended to produce visible improvements in health and economic vitality over a five-year period in five American towns with populations of less than 100,000 people.
“The idea is not just to make a measurable difference in five places, but to demonstrate how a comprehensive approach to health can work and be replicated in many other communities around the country,” noted Dyson when announcing the choice of five communities, selected from over 42 applications from 26 states.
Each of the five Wellville communities has a particular focus, though all will be working to improve child nutrition, local social conditions, and provision of care. The largest of the communities, Greater Muskegon, Mich. (population 79,275), has chosen to address in greater detail smoking, adult obesity, post-secondary education, and the social/emotional support environment. This community is already collaborating in a “1 in 21” campaign, with hopes of ranking as the state’s healthiest county by 2021. The smallest of the five communities, Spartanburg, S.C. (population 37,238) will focus on access to care, obesity, kindergarten readiness, and social capital — what would previously be called “civic pride.” This quality is linked, some believe, to general health outcomes while enabling a community to attract public and economic support for the initiatives that might improve health.
Lake County, Calif. (population 63,983) has chosen to highlight obesity and other chronic physical health issues, substance abuse, and mental and emotional health, while creating new measures to support long-term sustainability. Niagara Falls, N.Y. (population 49,722) aims to improve the social determinants of health, including transportation choices and housing and employment. The town also hopes to shift its current culture toward greater community engagement, while addressing, through a coordination of local services, teen pregnancy, childhood obesity, and other chronic diseases. Finally, Clatsop County, Ore. (population 37,301), will focus on chemical dependency, mental health, access to primary care medical homes, employment, obesity and food access, prenatal education and care, and “time banking,” an exchange service that allows community members to trade skills, based on available time and need.
The overall sponsor of the Wellville challenge is HICCup (Health Initiative Coordinating Council), a nonprofit, which fosters new models for the production of health. Founded by Dyson, HICCup demonstrates her desire to be on the vanguard of both market-making and population health initiatives — those focused on group as opposed to individual outcomes. HICCup will aid each of the individual communities with data and measurement, evidence-based health solutions, and financing strategies. “We’ll be measuring everything to see what makes the greatest impact: from healthier school lunches and better housing, to early childhood education and economic development, to active social networks and workplace wellness,” Dyson said. No matter what happens, this five-year social experiment will certainly clarify which factors — available transportation choices, the general food environment, opportunities for social sharing, others — most improve the overall health of a community.