Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Healthy Places

My academic/professional interests are wide ranging. They include epidemiology/public health as well as environmental conservation. It doesn’t sound that wide ranging, but it does cross several academic disciplines. That says more about how artificially our academic disciplines are set up than how expansive my outlook is. In Epidemiology class today, we’re talking about how city planners/designers and public health professionals work together in making sure places are designed to encourage healthy living. We’ll be talking about how viewscapes enhance mental health, how public spaces and neighborhood layout can enhance development of social capital, how walkability enhances physical activity and thus promotes cardiovascular health and healthy weight, how neighborhoods can even promote access to healthy foods. One of the references I’ll point the students to is “Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability,” Dannenberg, Frumkin and Jackson (eds) Island Press (2011). Across the two disciplines, city planning folks are talking about how they can act as public health officials, the public health folks are talking about they can act as city planning officials. For example, last fall’s American Public Health Association Annual Meeting was titled “Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds and Bodies” and featured scores of sessions tying community design – urban and rural – to health. Placemaker sites generally have some description of how better planning around public spaces will enhance the health of the residents of those neighborhoods. Researchers are working on quantifying that link and are able to show that the new walking path has led to more physical activity in that community or better access to more diverse restaurants led to better food choices. A tool to guide that kind of thinking is a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Based on the concept of an Environmental Impact Statement, the HIA shows how a development plan might affect public health. The HIA process can provide stakeholders with a chance to voice their concerns and make recommendations about how the plan or project could be modified to improve health and, according to the CDC’s fact sheet about Health Impact Assessment, “brings public health issues to the attention of persons who make decisions about areas that fall outside of traditional public health arenas, such as transportation and land use.” The HIA process is in use in the UK. Canada is starting to use it and a few counties in the US are using it. Placemaking and public health. Huh.

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