May 18 2011

Urban Planning and Public Health: Back Together Again

Urban planning is a field of study and practice that casts a wide net into a variety of related disciplines.

  • Social and Fiscal Policy;
  • Food Production (which I will discuss in a future post);
  • Environmental Conservation;
  • Public Health.

If the connection between urban planning and public health is not readily apparent, consider the impacts on human health that a car-oriented development has compared to that of a one oriented toward the convenience of pedestrians:

  1. Greater opportunities for regular moderate exercise (walking, biking, etc.);
  2. Fewer automobile emissions, which are linked with respiratory diseases;
  3. Much fewer pedestrian-automobile accidents resulting from ambiguous crossings along wide, car-oriented streets.

People do not know that urban planning and public health were once virtually the same profession with the same goals in mind. A century ago, cities adopted the practice of land-use zoning to address the problem of heavily polluting industries in proximity to residences.  At the turn of the 20th Century, most people who lived in cities were likely to live in mixed-use areas that included factories and other industrial plants. As a result toxic pollutants were pumped into the same air space as their residential neighbors. As air quality became worse and more people became sick, officials began instituting zoning. After seeing the results with the lack of zoning, a public health solution provided the birth of the new profession; city urban planning.

Things, of course, have changed in the century since zoning was first implemented in the United States.  Many urban planners took advantage of the zoning tool by ultimately separating what would be considered compatible land-uses, such as residential, commercial, and civic (schools, libraries, and churches).  Many new light industrial ventures are not toxic at all and would be compatible, yet they are often still relegated to the city edges (or worse yet, the central city slums).  Neighborhoods and cities with wide mixes of land uses and moderate-to-high densities, allow people to walk or bike to grocery stores and other necessities. We are now aware that this helps to counteract average annual weight gains.

Urban planners have just begun to refocus on the health impacts of zoning and other policies, but public health professionals have been studying these issues for years.  Some visionary professionals on each side have already begun to collaborate (check out http://urbandesign4health.com/ and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). It is about time for the paradigm to shift from independent fields studying two sides of the same issue, to interdependent fields studying the issue together as a comprehensive whole.

What would it look like if cities and counties began merging their urban planning and health departments? Would such a strategy save administrative funds (tax dollars)?  Would overall health and quality of planning suffer or improve by such a merger?  We are interested in your opinions.

Ryan Champlin

I am a freelance urban and social critic with a background in urban planning and New Urbanism, community and economic development, and social policy.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 at 3:32 pm and is filed under Environmental Design, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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