What Redwood Trees Can Teach Us About Community Health

A Community Health Story June 28, 2022

I love trees--especially the redwood trees near my childhood home in northern California. At more than 200 feet tall, they are the tallest trees on Earth. You would think the roots of the redwood tree would be extremely deep to help support its incredible height, but they're not. The roots are very shallow. 

Even with these shallow roots, redwood trees can withstand storms and other natural stresses, allowing them to live for hundreds of years. That’s because their roots interconnect with each other, making them strong. But it also makes them susceptible to disease; if one tree becomes infected, others become sick as well.

Redwood trees are part of complex communities of living things that interact with their environment. These ecosystems are dependent on redwoods to thrive, just as the health of redwoods is dependent on the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

It’s a lot like community health. I may be well today, but I can still be exposed to illnesses that are circulating in my community. That’s most obvious today with the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are other factors that contribute to individual and community health, including the resources available to sustain and improve whole health.
 

What is Community Health?

Community health is the collective level of overall health for a group of people who live, work, or play there. An individual’s health is influenced by their larger community, and the health of those communities is in turn influenced by each individual.

Community health is influenced by many factors, including the physical environment, social and cultural beliefs, community organizations, and individual behaviors that include exercise, immunizations, and other preventive health measures. For example, efforts to bring community gardens and other sources of nutritious produce to food deserts can help improve overall health and prevent obesity and its associated health problems. The fluoride in community water lowers the prevalence of tooth decay; lower levels of tooth decay then lower the average risk of heart disease.


Why is Community Health Important?

Our communities play a central role in our health. Everyone benefits from the factors that contribute to a healthy community, such as clean air and water, open space for recreation, social activities and a strong economy — in addition to high-quality healthcare.

Consider these statistics about the prevalence of common drivers of health:

  • 40% of metropolitan homes in the United States have at least one health or safety issue that puts occupants at risk for illness or injuries.
  • 1 person in 5 says lack of transportation has kept them from medical appointments, work, or getting the things they need
  • The lack of consistent access to nutritious food is the most commonly reported unmet social need in the U.S.

Just like redwoods that rely on each other to create a healthy environment, a strong community depends on the overall health of its population. When health companies and other stakeholders take action and make investments to address community needs, it has a direct impact on individual health. That means partnering with local organizations to create programs and support systems that improve community health in areas such as equitable food access, reducing racial disparities, and addressing the opioid use disorder epidemic.   

Redwood forests are a particularly apt analogy for community health, not only because of how the trees coexist with each other, but also because of how they impact the world beyond their branches. They provide essential ecosystems for other living things, and we know that access to nature can provide valuable behavioral health benefits to people. Forests are also important for conservation efforts: Coast redwood trees clean more carbon from the air and store it longer than any other tree, according to the Sempervirens Fund, an organization that has been instrumental in protecting these trees since 1899.

Like our communities, these redwood forests thrive when they are supported, and they give back to the rest of the world when they’re able to thrive. Like people, redwoods are stronger together. 

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