Public Health within Land-Use Planning


The National Association of Local Boards of Health (NALBOH) has published a policy guide intended for an audience of local planning associations and municipal governments. The connection between public health and the physical design of a community is an important, yet often overlooked, link. While city planners and developers are not public health experts, nonetheless, the two issues are related and NALBOH wishes to illuminate the relation with their document, entitled Land Use Planning for Public Health: The Role of Local Boards of Health in Community Design and Development. I encourage you to check out the entire 30-some page guide, but, in the meantime, I will highlight some interesting sections from it.

A key insight stressed in the guide is that “health specialists or planning departments cannot afford to operate in isolation from one another.” Each area affects the other, and a failure to see this link will adversely affect a community’s vitality and waste taxpayers’ money. With obesity rates on the rise in the United States, and the costs incurred from these rates subsequently skyrocketing, a comprehensive plan to battle this epidemic must consider all issues related to it. The problem is even more dire in Pennsylvania, where obesity rates are higher than the national percentage (64.2% of adults in Pennsylvania are obese, compared to 63% in the entire nation). This should come as no surprise to those who are aware of the fragmented planning practices within the state and the lack of collaboration among planning boards. When The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Poliucy published Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania, some examples of the costs of fragmentation included duplication in infrastructure, redundant staffing and services, and unnecessary competition between jurisdictions that could benefit from working together. The cost of failing to address regional planning problems (which then affect public health) can be added to this list.

But why land-use planning, specifically? For many reasons, but I’ll focus on some of the most salient here. To start, land-use planning affects transportation policy, a point stressed by the recent development and upgrade plan put forward by LANTA (see presentation here). Transportation directly affects traffic congestion levels, which in turn affect the air quality within an area – a public health issue. Moreover, land-use planning affects the design of a community, which has an impact on the walkability of a neighborhood. If a community’s residents are forced to use a car for short distances (because a lack of sidewalks prevents them from walking to their destination), then they are less likely to engage in an easy physical activity. The NALBOH report cites an eye-opening statistic from a recent study that links car-use and obesity rates: “A study of 10,808 households in Atlanta found that every hour spent in the car raises the likelihood of being obese by 6%. However, each kilometer walked per day was associated with a 4.8% reduction in the likelihood of obesity.”

Many studies have shown the connections between public health issues and land-use planning. The next challenge (and, in my opinion, a considerable one) is the implementation of public policy that addresses the data. Collaborative approaches can help in pushing better local policies, by increasing a region’s competitiveness in attracting grant money and recruiting experts from different fields that can bring much-needed perspectives to land-use planning. Additionally, a regional public health department can contribute to collaboration efforts by assessing a local community’s health needs, and having that information readily available for use by planning commissions. In line with this view, the Lehigh Valley Board of Health, currently working out a budget and a staffing and services plan, will be an ally in the land-use planning efforts within the Valley.

Visit RenewLV’s Health Initiative page to check out the most recent news about the bi-county health department, as well as to read the latest minutes from the Board of Health’s meetings. To keep up to date on the Regional Health Initiative, sign up as a supporter by visiting our Join Us page, making sure to check off the Health box.

About Beata Bujalska

Beata Bujalska is the former Campaign Coordinator for Renew Lehigh Valley. She currently lives in Panama, a place that fascinates her due to (among other reasons) its recent development boom.

Posted on August 7, 2009, in Health, Municipal Government, Neighborhoods, Public Infrastructure, Regions, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: