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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

OpEd: An Annual Checkup

By Adam Jones, posted Jun 14, 2019
Adam Jones
I have a confession to make: I am not an economist and as much view the world, its problems and solutions through the lends of scarce resources and opportunities and often make judgements in dollar terms.
 
But this single-lens perspective is no different than a physical therapist who thinks everything can be solved with stretching, a chiropractor who says spinal alignment can cure my cold, a lawyer who thinks a regulation will guide behavior or a psychologist who believes system 1 thinking is overpowering system 2 – or something like that. Remember, I’m an economist.
 
Each of us is a specialist in our own way, with our own valuable tools, but occasionally we need a good generalist to look at all the pieces and assess our overall health.
 
A friend once asked me why communities have so many scorecard events, outlook conferences, forecast breakfasts, Garner reports, state of the city/county speeches, etc. when they often say similar things.
 
I think the answer is the same as your annual physical. You may not learn much you didn’t already know, but looking at all the pieces together often reveals the “new.”
 
The same is true with our community’s health. Each of us is a specialist in our issue of choice, but only by looking at all the pieces together can we see the big picture and opportunities for the “new.”
 
Our economic health affects our physical and mental health, which, in turn, affects our economic health. One need not look far to find studies linking work-related or financial stress to physical and mental health issues, and those issues also have economic consequences.
 
Major depressive disorder alone is estimated to cost the Wilmington metropolitan area over $170 million in lost economic output. But it’s not just economics that matter. Our physical, social and cultural environments all play a crucial role in the region’s health and, thus, its economic success.
 
Wilmington’s physical environment feeds back into our economic success through several channels, including physical and mental health, not to mention the geographic disparity of economic opportunity.
 
Passive recreation projects such as the cross-city trail, Empie Park renovations, green space preservation and the potential Wilmington Rail Trail allow us to be physically active and clear our minds as a way to recharge and approach issues from new perspectives.
 
The benefits of such projects show up, in economic terms, as increased demand for homes near the projects and, in mental health terms, as a positive relationship between access/availability and greater mental well-being.
 
Research finds parks have a dose-response relationship and that more visits lead to greater mental health.
 
Measure these relationships – including air quality, water quality, traffic congestion, etc. – using your tools/ lens, and the result is likely the same: A solid physical environment correlates with better health outcomes.
 
Finally, our culture and supporting amenities play into our economic, mental and physical health as well.
 
Communities with arts organizations such as an opera, symphony or ballet have about 2% more knowledge workers than those without.
 
Amenities such as the Wilson Center provide critical support for the attraction and retention of knowledge workers, but importantly, they also provide gathering places for people to connect.
 
Academic research is starting to look at the effects of suburban development and finds isolation leads to a declining number of adult friendships. There is strong evidence that people with close bonds to others have higher levels of health than those who are socially isolated.
 
Public spaces that encourage repeated, chance encounters help to encourage social connections and build the community’s social capital.
 
When we think about health care, the environment and pollution, affordable housing, economic opportunity, the arts or any other issue, remember, they are all components of our region’s overall health.
 
So bring your tools, and we’ll see you at the community’s next annual physical.
 
Adam Jones is a regional economist with UNCW’s Swain Center and an associate professor of economics in UNCW’s Cameron School of Business.
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