Ontario study highlights residents’ priorities
In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers investigated the factors that community members prioritize for their well-being and how policymakers can incorporate them to promote community engagement and overall community health. They utilized qualitative focus group methodologies comprising intensive group interviews with adults (aged 18-75) from four Canadian communities across the nation’s largest province, Ontario. Their findings revealed that in residents’ minds, well-being is achieved through a combination of amenities, accessibility, and community engagement, with a lack of marginalization highlighted in the latter.
Study: Towards a community-driven definition of community wellbeing: A qualitative study of residents. Image Credit: VectorMine / Shutterstock
Can community health affect personal and social well-being?
A discordance between what the government thinks its citizens need and what they actually want themselves has been the cornerstone of most civil uprisings, the most historically notable of which was the French Revolution. In recent decades, research from both the scientific and social lens has increasingly recognized the role played by communities as the building blocks of nations, with attention paid to the influence of community health on individual and societal well-being.
Despite existing since time immemorial, community well-being has recently been formally defined as a framework encapsulating the environmental, economic, social, political, spiritual, and cultural domains that shape the goals and priorities of any community. Community-centric research aims to identify or develop objective indicators of community well-being. A community’s amenities, services, and social resources are rapidly being formulated into discrete constructs comprising aspects of social, political, economic, cultural, and political factors associated with individuals living within that community. These constructs, in turn, are used as metrics to evaluate residents’ satisfaction.
“More recently, researchers have underscored the importance of aligning community well-being tools (e.g., indicator measures and survey instruments) with the social and political values of the community in question to produce outcomes that are based on local evidence and reflect community perspectives.”
An encouraging growing consensus amongst researchers is that evaluation and assessment metrics, hitherto devised by social scientists, should instead be conceived as a collaborative effort between experts and members of the community. A growing body of evidence suggests that every community is unique, and no metric or policy can suit all communities. Evidence from social distancing measures accompanying the recent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019) pandemic indicates that residents of communities actively promoting engagement presented better compliance with COVID-19 restrictions while still maintaining better mental health outcomes compared to communities where crosstalk between residents and policymakers was minimal.
“…participatory processes in indicator development can improve their relevance in policy and governance. Inductive approaches that generate domains directly from community actors have been demonstrated to (1) enable participatory engagement and transparency in regional decision-making, (2) promote the use of local evidence, (3) help define the shared goals and priorities of a community, and (4) help shift the focus towards practical outcomes for residents.”
It is, therefore, evident that understanding the wants and needs of a community is essential in measuring resident satisfaction, as well as a prerequisite before the conceptualization of policies aimed at promoting community well-being. Unfortunately, research of this nature is scarce.
About the study
In the present study, researchers aimed to use semi-structured group interviews in tandem with thematic analyses to elucidate the critical perspectives and themes associated with community well-being. The study cohort comprised focal groups from four distinct communities across the Canadian province of Ontario. The included communities comprised the City of Toronto, the City of Greater Sudbury, the Regional Municipality of Peel, and the City of Thunder Bay.
Adult volunteers (over the age of 18) from the areas mentioned above were invited for screening and eligibility confirmation between May and July 2022. During screening, data on demographics was collected, and participants were informed about the technical aspects of the study. The Community Well-being Survey, an online survey employing the cross-sectional study methodology, was used for screening.
Selected participants were cherry-picked to maximize diversity in the final study cohorts. Care was taken to ensure that at least 50% of the final cohorts comprised women and included representation for all racial groups (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). Variations in age, education, and economic factors were further represented.
The focal group interview comprised 3-4 participants per cohort (N = 15). It consisted of a 2-hour-long semi-structured interview focusing on community perceptions regarding four prespecified community well-being domains: social, environmental, physical, and political. Participants were queried on both individual and intersubjective experiences.
The NVivo 12 code generation tool was used for thematic analyses. Both descriptive and interpretative methods were used in qualitative data generation.
The present study identified four major themes of community well-being across the assessed communities. The first pertained to the sense of community belonging and was found to be significantly associated with shared spaces, support, routines, and identities. Identities were found to correspond mainly to age and social responsibilities. Encouragingly, while ‘groupism’ was seen to foster community participation and a sense of belonging, respondents recognized the demerits of excessive groupism resulting in the marginalization of outliers and the formation of ‘siloed communities.’
The second theme relates to the amenities and social contexts which promote community development. Amenities, including places of worship, grocery stores, recreation centers, health care facilities, and public greenspaces within the community’s geographic confines, were essential requirements for resident satisfaction. Notably, the accessibility of residents to these amenities, specifically availability, affordability, proximity, and physical access, were key to a community thriving.
The third theme highlights that almost all respondents felt that effective policy and community decision-making must be informed by community residents instead of being entirely in the purview of policymakers. Furthermore, equal representation of all members of the community, irrespective of cultural, racial, or financial background, was emphasized.
“The politicians need to get this little catchphrase out of their vocabulary altogether, “It’s not on my agenda.” Just because it’s not on your agenda doesn’t mean it’s not on everyone else’s. To me, affordable housing is really lacking… [as is] food security. So poor people, their concern is, how do I get food on the table? Middle class people say, is it nutritious? The wealthy say, is it pretty? So, the decision-makers say, is it pretty? … [Decision-makers need to understand] what happens when we don’t have a liveable wage.”
Theme four forms a distinct yet underlying factor of all pieces – community well-being relies on the equal, non-marginalized opportunity for participation and engagement of all residents. “Flourishing should not be a privilege”.
In the present study, researchers conducted extended semi-structured interviews with focal representatives from 4 communities across Ontario, Canada. Their subsequent qualitative analyses revealed four themes broadly encompassing culture, politics, social connection, amenities, inclusive decision-making, and equity. Notably, marginalization based mainly on financial stability and race and a communication breakdown between residents and policymakers were identified as the key barriers preventing community growth and citizen satisfaction.
“As local governments gain interest in understanding the well-being of their communities, such efforts should recognize community residents as experts on their own needs and value their essential role in building communities that support better lives.”
- Michalski, C., Ragunathan, A., Foster, A., Pagalan, L., Chu, C., Diemert, L. M., Helliwell, J. F., Urajnik, D., Speidel, R., Malti, T., Fierheller, D., Fusca, L., Zenlea, I., McKean, S., & Rosella, L. C. (2023). Towards a community-driven definition of community well-being: A qualitative study of residents. PLOS ONE, 18(11), e0294721, DOI – https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0294721, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0294721