Fostering Healthy Communities 

through Connection with Nature

Community Health

For many people, the relationship between ecosystems and their own health and well-being can be unclear.  This makes it difficult for individuals as well as communities to consider ecosystems and the services they provide in personal and organizational decision making.  However, decisions—particularly at the community level—can be made significantly more robust and sustainable if they consider the benefits of ecosystems and the impacts of human activity on ecosystems. Many communities struggle with complex environmental problems that require long-range planning and engagement with multiple stakeholders. Some of these issues include climate change and sustainable adaptation and mitigation efforts, resilience in the face of disasters that may be climate-related, such as wildfires, hurricanes and associated flooding and environmental damages, and stormwater management . They may also face human-driven modifications that adversely impact both humans and ecosystems.  Communities often lack the technical expertise, environmental knowledge and community capacity to address these risks.  The Community Ecology Institute supports communities in understanding a community’s specific concerns with attention to both ecosystem and human health and well-being and how they come together to create community health. 

Figure 1.  Example Conceptual Model: Stressor, Ecosystem Services and Human Health and Well-Being (EPA, 2016)

Ecosystem Services: Ecosystem goods and services are the many life-sustaining benefits we receive from nature—clean air and water, fertile soil for crop production, pollination, and flood control. These ecosystem services are important to environmental and human health and well-being, yet they are limited and often taken for granted (U.S. EPA, 2014a).  Categories of ecosystem services include clean water for drinking; clean water for recreation and aquatic habitat; adequate water supply; food, fuel and fiber; recreation, cultural and aesthetic amenities; contributions to climate stability; protection from hazardous weather; habitat and the maintenance of biodiversity; and clean air.  These benefits and interactions take place in multiple scales (e.g., airsheds and watersheds) and settings (e.g., rural, urban, suburban) and at municipal, state, regional, and tribal levels.  

​Well-Being: There is not consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning. In simple terms, well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good. For public health purposes, physical well-being (e.g., feeling very healthy and full of energy) is also viewed as critical to overall well-being. Researchers from different disciplines have examined different aspects of well-being that include the following: physical well-being; economic well-being; social well-being; development and activity; emotional well-being; psychological well-being; life satisfaction; domain specific satisfaction; engaging activities and work.” (CDC, Health-Related Quality of Life). The EPA has developed a Human Well-Being Index (U.S. EPA, 2012c) that includes Connection to Nature, Cultural Fulfillment, Education, Health, Leisure Time, Living Standards, Safety and Security and Social Cohesion.


A human community may be defined as a group of people who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action within similar geographical locations or settings. Community is not only defined by a common geography; communities may also develop around a particular interest, issue, identity, or subject matter. MacQueen et al. (2001) describe five core elements of community: Locus (a sense of place) such as a city, town, village, tribes, neighborhood, workplace, etc.; Sharing common interests and perspectives; Joint action that bring people together,
Social ties such as family and friends; and Diversity of people and perspectives. 
Ecological communities  are an assemblage of populations of different species within a specified location in space and time.  While the location may be specified in terms of habitat or geography, the species within it may or may not directly interact with each other.  The term may also describe a general category of organisms, for instance aquatic invertebrates.

Figure 2.  Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being (EPA, 2016)