Communities have a lot in common with our own bodies—a series of complex and interacting systems in themselves.

Communities and cities are complex systems. It’s often hard to see why some things work really well and other things don’t work at all. At a recent gathering of all The Integration Initiative (TII) sites, we discussed how to create change at the systems level. But because systems can be such a theoretical concept, many participants struggled to tie our discussion to the realities of our communities. Dr. Tiffany Manuel of Enterprise Community Partners, one of the presenters. urged us to consider the value of using metaphors to ground our conversations when we think about complicated approaches to social change.

I work at a city health department and, from my point-of-view, communities have a lot in common with our own bodies—complex systems in themselves. What if we think about the multiple interacting systems in our bodies to understand our cities?

For example, think of money flowing through a community in the way blood flows throughout our bodies. Employers are like the heart—they pump money throughout the community as they pay employees, purchase goods and services and sell what they produce. When the circulatory system of our community’s veins and arteries are healthy and unblocked, the money circulates through the community to all parts of the body. But when too much blood leaves the body or we have blocked arteries, we have circulation problems and extremities, like the foot or hand, can start to suffer. In the same way, we could have constrictions that prevent enough blood from getting to specific communities in our cities.

Cross-Section illustration of the human heart

The heart and the circulatory systems pumps blood through the body. Image Source: Flickr, Patrick J. Lynch, CC BY 2.0.

Think of bones as the infrastructure holding up our communities: the buildings, the roads, the trains, the sidewalks and the parks. Sometimes our skeleton isn’t totally in balance—we may over-invest in infrastructure for cars and under-invest in sidewalks, bike paths, transit and parks. Maybe our thighbone is twice as big as it should be, and our other bones are too small.

Our muscles are like the strength of our current and future workforce. Sometimes we aren’t using our own muscles—our local education and workforce development pipeline—so much that we need to import workforce talent. This is akin to buying a wheel chair instead of relying on our body’s muscles to move us. Investing in schools and developing our local workforce makes more sense than always importing talent and employees from elsewhere. It’s going to be tough and it may take a while to build up our own muscles, but do we really want to be a body that relies on a wheelchair?

An illustration of the muscles in the human torso

Muscles move the body and keep it strong. Image source: Flickr, Farm3, CC BY 2.0.

Air and breath are our relationships and social capital. They are the invisible gas that brings oxygen and life to all parts of the body. Like air and our lungs, relationships need civic infrastructure to develop and grow and in many cities these social gathering places, whether they’re community centers, churches, clubs or stores sometimes support dated social realities. As demographics and social media have changed our cities, we can see that new brick and mortar gathering places could also help us cultivate relationships throughout our entire community. When we only breathe into part of our lungs, the body doesn’t work as well as when we breathe deeply using our entire lung capacity.

The police are like our immune system. In communities, the police are needed to keep the body safe, but it’s possible our immune system has turned against its own body at some times and in some places. Auto immune health problems are tough to fix, but when we recognize we could have a problem, we can test and try different approaches to getting back on track.

Blood Cells under a microscope

The immune system keeps the body safe. Image Source: Senger4, CC BY 2.0,

We are housed within our own skin, and our communities need healthy skin to house their residents. Our bodies have specialized types of skin that meet specific needs for different parts of the body. Shoulder skin is different from the skin on the palms of our hands. Healthy skin conforms very specifically to the body part it covers—one size does not fit all. In many cities, we might be building too much of one kind of housing and not enough of other varieties. We might have too much high-priced shoulder skin (e.g., one-bedroom condos), and not enough skin tailored to the local residents who need it, whether that’s more affordable units or units sized for multi-generation households.

If you’re following this far, it becomes easy to see how both skin and muscle problems can become exacerbated by the circulation problems in our extremities.

And what about our brains? Modern life in the information age all too easily creates disconnects between our minds and our bodies. Similarly, public and private sector decision makers in many cities can become disconnected from the community/body of their neighborhoods. By listening carefully to our whole body we may be able to get information that would allow us to prevent future health problems from happening in the first place, rather than waiting until we’re very sick when it’s harder and more expensive to treat.

A cross-section of the human brain

The brain is responsible for many cognitive functions. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

By looking at cities as inter-connected systems as complex as human bodies, we can understand that multi-pronged solutions are needed to make a host of systems changes. A person needs to make a lot of lifestyle changes once they make the decision to become healthier. We need to eat less (change consumption patterns), exercise more (build our workforce development and education systems), relax and breathe (build social connections), take care of our skin (have sensible housing policies), drink calcium to strengthen bones (invest in infrastructure), and allow our immune system to recover when we get sick (embrace community policing practices).We need to invest in real-life and virtual structures that foster positive relationships among city dwellers.

We also know when the mind is unconnected to the body, when decision-makers are not informed by their constituents, our cities aren’t as healthy as they could be. We can support the mind-body continuum through practices like authentic on-going community engagement and participatory budgeting.

The good news is that we all know how to live a healthier life, even if we find it difficult sometimes to do. Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey’s, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, annual letter this year talks about looking at familiar landscapes in new ways and about accessing ancient wisdom that reminds us we already possess all that we need to succeed. The answers are within us. We know we have to work together, and that we can’t leave a foot or hand behind, or our entire body will be less well off. We know it took a long time to let ourselves get out of shape, but we know we are up to the job of adapting complex systems so that all our cities and all parts of our cities become healthy and (ahem) living cities.