Public Health: An Ecosystem of Partnerships

By Cameron Brown

Cameron Brown is a Masters of Public Health candidate at Portland State University doing his field experience with Willamette Partnership.

There are few people in the public health field that think about ecosystems and ecology like I do. This is what drew me to completing my field experience for grad school with Willamette Partnership, a conservation organization thinking about public health.  I’ve been working on research that details how healthcare administrators and environmental restoration organizations can improve public health by working together to get more people outside and increase access to greener areas in the Willamette Valley.

As a Masters of Public Health candidate at Portland State University, I often discuss health inequities with my classmates and professors with questions like, “Why do some neighborhoods have worse health than others?” Most class discussions center on what public health professionals would call the “ecological model” of human health, or the influence of individuals, communities, organizations, and policies. It is interesting that they use the word “ecological” to refer only to humans and their social systems. What about nature?

Cameron Brown is a Masters of Public Health candidate at Portland State University who interned with Willamette Partnership for his graduate field experience. Photo courtesy of Cameron Brown.

My childhood home was a five-minute drive up the hill from downtown Portland. However, the outdoors were not separate from my home, family, or the air I breathed with an Oregon Coast Range forest as my backyard. These contrasting environments have always made it clear that I feel better after a walk in the woods than after a walk downtown. Tree-filtered air, a diversity of life to observe, and soft trails helped keep my body healthy and mind quiet. Much better than paying attention to exhaust, abrasive concrete, and speeding cars.

Urban institutions like school, work, and a social life makes it necessary for many of us to spend our time in the city. However, not all city neighborhoods have the opportunity to walk out the backdoor to a native forest like I had. Researchers tell us that we need nature to improve air for breathing, for a healthier heart, for a peaceful mind, and for a strong immune system. So, why don’t all urban neighborhoods have these natural health resources? The evidence is out: Nature holds public health benefits.

Biologists and ecologists also talk about “ecosystems” frequently, but their framework can be limited in the opposite direction from that of the public health professionals. When scientists talk about ecosystems, they often omit the human components and influences. Wouldn’t a truly ecological framework combine both the biologic and the public health viewpoints to understand how human social systems and the natural world interact to either improve or reduce health? I think so.

Willamette Partnership also believes that conservation work affects public health and vice versa. Just as the plants, animals, and fungi that inhabit an ecosystem are interdependent, Willamette Partnership demonstrates that scientists or public health professionals cannot do the work by themselves. An interdependence of biologists, ecologists, health professionals, policymakers, journalists, and urban planners is necessary to create lasting changes in our neighborhoods, social systems, and natural environments that improve health for all.  

All of this collaboration is certainly challenging. I’ve never been trained in economics or ecology, for example, though I often consult reports from these fields when completing work for Willamette Partnership. Doctors, conservationists, restoration providers, and hospital administrators will be similarly challenged when determining how and when to invest in nature to improve public health, especially for the most vulnerable. Watch this summer for the release of the “Willamette Valley Health and Outdoors Opportunities Assessment.” I’m hoping the assessment will be a great step in building that ecosystem of people working to connect good health and resilient ecosystems.


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