Wednesday 21 March 2018

Discover Ireland's healthiest hotspots

The national Healthy cities and counties of Ireland network is already delivering results nationwide, writes Tanya Sweeney

In association with the Health Service Executive

Staying fit and healthy in the throes of a busy lifestyle can sometimes seem like a challenge, but a brilliant initiative proves that there is indeed strength in numbers.

Established in 1987 by the World Health Organization (WHO), Healthy Cities and Counties involves several local authorities in Ireland working together to support innovative wellbeing projects. Today, the WHO Healthy Cities Programme has over 1,400 cities, regions and towns worldwide.

The National Healthy Cities and Counties of Ireland Network was launched in City Hall, Dublin, on November 29, 2016. The hope is that the programme, which is supported through a new Healthy Ireland Fund and which is already a huge success in some parts of Ireland, will be rolled out to the rest of the country in the coming months.

Its goals are simple: to increase the proportion of people who are healthy at all stages of life; to reduce health inequalities; to protect the public from threats to health, and to create an environment where every individual and sector of society can play a part in achieving a healthy Ireland.

Thanks to the initiative, local communities can work together, supporting each other in their various wellness goals. Voluntary groups and community members work side by side to create a place where wellbeing and education around health feel accessible and inclusive. Huge health risks - among them, obesity, smoking, mental health issues, loneliness, alcohol and drugs - are being tackled with both information and strategies to help people overcome them. The health sector alone cannot address these problems - we must collectively change our approach.

Local authorities have the power, too, to protect and promote their citizens' health and wellbeing. Taking into account economic and urban development and regeneration, a healthier county or city can be available to all. And so far, the results have meant a huge difference for countless Irish people.

Significantly, Healthy Cities and Counties focus less on healthcare and services, and more on strengthening the preconditions for good ongoing health.

"These include access to education, choice of affordable healthy food options, access to green and blue spaces, housing, transport options, feeling safe and opportunities to connect with others and contribute to society," explains Fiona Donovan, project manager for the Healthy Cities and Counties Network.

There are currently seven local authority areas in the Healthy Cities and Counties of Ireland Network (Galway, Cork, Waterford, South Dublin, Limerick, Offaly and Mayo). The majority of other cities and counties in Ireland are in progress, with the aim to have all cities and counties officially involved by the end of 2019.

"Ultimately, most agencies, groups and communities are focusing on the same thing - 'What can we do to make our community a great place to live, work and play?'" notes Donovan. "A great example of connecting existing networks nationally is Parkrun and Men's Sheds working together to promote men's health."

The WHO recently announced that the 2018 WHO International Healthy Cities Conference will take place in Belfast this October. It will present a great opportunity for Healthy Ireland to show others how they approach making Ireland a better place at a local level.

"I believe that very often we have the resources and solutions to promote health and wellbeing," observes Donovan. "It's about making the connections."

Already, there is much to be excited about, for the successful Healthy Cities and Counties of Ireland Network initiatives are plentiful. Here are just some of them...

Healthy Waterford

As part of Healthy Waterford, there is a focus on 'raising the energy' of Waterford by promoting the benefits of kindness for all. The movement even has its own hashtag - #KindWaterford. It has long been established that the effects of kindness on our mental health are palpable: witnessing acts of kindness releases oxytocin, referred to as the 'love hormone', which aids in lowering blood pressure, as well as increasing our self-esteem and optimism. And #KindWaterford is aiming to reduce stigma towards mental illness in the area.

Elsewhere in the city, the Buddy Benches programme enables children to foster friendships outside of their immediate communities across the county. So far, 600 youngsters have benefited from the scheme and regularly receive information about how it's the #littlethings that matter when it comes to friendship and kindness.

And, 50 years to the day after the last passenger train journey between Waterford and Dungarvan, the line is back in action, this time as Ireland's longest Greenway. Stretching 46km from Waterford city to the town of Dungarvan, this off-road paved path has been made suitable for all ages and abilities. The route takes walkers and cyclists from the River Suir in Waterford city all the way to the sea in Dungarvan, through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Ireland.

Healthy South Dublin

Healthy South Dublin has joined forces with the Irish Cancer Society to deliver a We Can Quit programme. Statistics have shown that 56pc of women from disadvantaged communities are habitual smokers, compared to a national smoking rate of 20pc.

A number of women have signed up to 12-week programmes, with success rates of up to 75pc. Plans are also afoot to expand the programme to Clondalkin and other parts of Dublin.

South Dublin County Council has been delivering an annual Health & Wellbeing Programme for its citizens and staff since 2014.

Healthy Mayo

As part of Healthy Mayo, Ballina Athletic Club are leaving their lights on in the evenings for the public to use the facility, helping locals to make the most of a brilliant community asset. It also provides a safe place for walkers to use. Healthy Mayo has partnered with Creative Mayo Strategy to make fairy doors for Belleek Woods. The plan is to encourage families and youngsters to be active and more curious about being in nature.

Healthy Limerick

In Limerick, cycling has been widely promoted among youngsters since Healthy Ireland aligned with Limerick Smarter Travel, Limerick Childcare Committee and the National Childhood Network. It's hoped that every county will soon have a walking and cycling strategy of its own. A new guide has also been launched by Limerick City & County Council to highlight a selection of the numerous walking and running routes across Limerick. Among them are the Three Bridges Walk, the City Centre to UL Riverbank and the Neil Cusack Olympic Trail at Condell Road.

Healthy Offaly

The county has no shortage of lush landscapes, and Healthy Offaly has turned its attention to the benefits of green space for health and wellbeing, funded by the HSE and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The local community have been invited to get involved in design workshops. Together, it's hoped they can determine what kinds of features - infrastructure, equipment, furniture, aesthetics - would encourage communities to be more active in the great outdoors.

Not only will this research contribute to national guidelines on planning, the information will also be shared locally to progress actions as part of Healthy Offaly.

Healthy Galway

Some Irish cities have been involved with Healthy Cities for over 10 years. Galway, for instance, was the first city to develop a strategy to address alcohol-related harm. Launched in February 2013, the strategy has 16 goals and 40 specific actions in four key areas of (a) prevention; (b) supply, access and availability; (c) screening, treatment and support services, and (d) research, monitoring and evaluation.

Galway Healthy Cities, as part of its work plan, has also identified a focus on early years as one of its priorities. A commitment has been given to develop an early-years integrated plan for Galway city focusing on children aged 0-3.

Elsewhere, Let's Get Galway Growing is a network of community gardens in Galway city that are organised and run by local people for the local community. There are an increasing number of community gardens in different parts of the city including Ballinfoile, Ballybane, Merlin Woods and Westside. They have become important community spaces that enable local people to get involved in gardening, as well as providing training courses in gardening and environmental issues.

Elsewhere in the county, two projects - the Galway Age Friendly City & County Programme and the Dementia Friendly Communities - are striving to make ageing a more positive and less isolating experience for all.

Healthy Cork

The Cork Food Policy aims to promote and prioritise sustainable food production and consumption in the city, and recommend food policy development.

Elsewhere in Cork, plans are afoot for the city centre to be 'greened' with foliage and vegetable gardens. The Green Spaces for Health Initiative will see the South Parish become a pilot project for healthy, sustainable, green urban living in a densely developed inner-city area.

Gardening schemes that benefit the local area and provide opportunities for social interaction will be established through an 'Adopt a Food Box' scheme.

The Northside Enhanced Physical Activity and Sports Project is also in progress. In recent years, the City Council has developed a looped tarred walk around a suite of two playing pitches at Fairfield Park.

The Cork City LCDC Healthy Ireland Initiative will fund the provision of an enclosed outdoor gym at the Fairfield. The gym equipment is set to be all-inclusive: suitable for people of all abilities, offering a wide range and free to all, thus addressing the issue of cost being a barrier to being more active.

And thanks to a €99,000 funding injection, awarded by the Cork City Local Community Development Committee, Healthy Cork will also be able to implement a new physical activity for people with autism. It is a targeted, collaborative, interactive and accessible model of delivering a specially formulated physical activity programme. The programme is designed to effect change in the fundamental movement skills (or the building blocks of movement) in the participants, and in turn increase the health outcomes for those involved.

Irish Independent

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