New study published explores what makes Kimberley a healthy rural community, what challenges the city faces and what concerns some of its residents have for its future. Paul Rodgers photo.

Local researchers publish study on what makes a healthy rural community

A team of local researchers have just released the results of a recent study they conducted for the Canadian Journal of Rural Medicine.

“What Makes a Rural Community Healthy?” was commissioned by Healthy Kimberley to with the original intent of determining if there was anything else the city could use to make it healthier.

READ MORE: Healthy Kimberley seeks board members

The study’s objectives evolved after its lead author Dr. Illona Hale met with Dr. Stefan Grzybowski, a nationally renowned rural health expert who works with the Centre for Rural Health Research.

What the two realized is that most studies centred on rural health typically tend to focus on communities that are experiencing challenges, and that most rural populations in Canada and around the world generally report poorer health outcomes than urban centres.

There are some exceptions to this, and the East Kootenay happens to be one of them. The health outcomes for the population here are comparable to urban outcomes.

Hale and Grzybowski therefore decided that it would be valuable to study and document why that is; what makes some rural communities, like Kimberley, healthier than others?

To find out, the two lead researchers teamed up with co-author Zoe Ramdin to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews with a purposive sample of 12 community leaders, focusing on people who are aware of the challenges faced by the most vulnerable members of the community including seniors, people with disabilities, young parents, low income people and individuals frequently involved with law enforcement.

They sought to answer the question: “What do key community leaders in Kimberley BC believe are the factors that support or undermine the health of the individuals in their community and what do they feel are some opportunities for improvement?”

The study identified five main themes: the availability of amenities, healthy lifestyle as a shared value, transition away from being a mining community, geographic location and challenges.

“Despite the generally positive responses, some challenges were identified, particularly in relation to certain vulnerable populations,” the paper explained.

Many participants reportedly began their interviews with descriptions of Kimberley’s many outstanding recreational amenities and programs that are available, but challenges were also identified here, including cost, under utilisation and lack of coordination of existing facilities and activities.

The participants unanimously described what they felt to be an unusually healthy population and culture that exists here, describing a welcoming atmosphere that reflects people’s desire to be active and a sense of pride in that aspect of the community.

This in turn creates what the researchers called a “healthy feedback loop” — wherein people who share healthy values influence the development and maintenance of infrastructure and programs through fundraising, volunteering and supporting businesses that cater to health-conscious consumers and the election of like-minded local officials.

In 2001 when the Sullivan Mine shuttered and the community made a commitment to becoming a tourism economy, the study’s interviewees reported that there was also a transition away from the “many unhealthy activities and values associated with being a mining town: more of a drinking culture.”

The geographic location of Kimberley, being on a trunk road rather than on a major thoroughfare, results in less fast food outlets and fewer transients meaning there is more of a community of people who intend to be here.

In terms of challenges, for children and youth the emerging problems are not necessarily unique to Kimberley, but are rather reflective of greater societal changes including an increase in mental health issues, the use of nicotine vapes, more screen time and so on.

Several commented on the lack of adequate transportation options for those relying on public transport resulting in social isolation becoming a problem for seniors and those with disabilities, particularly in the winter.

Finally, many of the interviewees expressed some concern for the future of Kimberley. Following the transition from a mining to tourism-based economy, there is concern about the phenomenon of “amenity migration.”

This involves people from urban centres moving to or purchasing second homes in rural communities for the lifestyle, which can in turn change the demographics of the community over time. Rising housing prices, increased pressure on resources and infrastructure, sprawling development impacting the natural environment of the town and ultimately the creation of a community only affordable to the wealthy are potential symptoms of amenity migration that pose concern to locals of Kimberley.

This trend is impacted and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Kimberley seems to be nearing a tipping point and as a community we can make choices now to either allow ‘market force’” to send us down the well-worn path, with predictable and unhealthy consequences, or create a strategy to do something bold and different to ensure that our community remains diverse and affordable for everyone and that we don’t sacrifice the natural environment to accommodate an ever-increasing population,” Hale said.

“This is the challenge for our local government and I am optimistic that they will rise to it.”

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