Our History

About Active Living By Design, building healthy communities

When we launched in 2002 as a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we were at the forefront of the “active living movement,” a new paradigm that contributed to a multi-sector understanding of health. This new approach asked how individuals’ choices were being affected by external forces. Since then, we have partnered with foundations and communities across the country to help shift the conversation toward one that recognizes how the places where we live affect our health. Together, we have demonstrated that by reshaping policies, systems, and environments, multi-sector community partnerships can help everyone achieve their full health potential.

Our work with local leaders in 35 states has underscored the importance of community context. We recognize that community members’ experiences often reveal which policy, environment, or systems changes will have the most impact and be the most sustainable. We have championed authentic community engagement as an essential practice for lifting up and learning from local realities. And equity has formed the foundation of our approach from the start: we focused on populations at highest risk for obesity and other chronic diseases based on factors such as race, income, and geographic location.

Advancing community-led action is equity in action. Local leaders have shared the need for a more expansive understanding of what makes communities healthy. This mutual learning informed our organization’s initial expansion from an active living focus to one that included healthy eating. We’ve also worked with coalition members who cite violence as the biggest drain on their community’s health. Others mention concentrated poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Still others suffer from isolation and loneliness.

These conversations, on-the-ground experience, and a growing body of research helped us build an understanding that, while active living and healthy eating are key strategies to sustain healthy change, they alone are not enough. As communities’ demand and capacity for change have grown, we’ve evolved alongside them to support coalitions that are addressing housing, community safety, restorative justice, and many other issues.

Active Living By Design was part of the North Carolina Institute for Public Health at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from its inception until February 1, 2014. It is now a fiscally-sponsored project of TSNE MissionWorks and continues to be based in Chapel Hill, NC.