The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Indeed, a strict “medical care” focus can distract from surrounding issues that actually make a measurable impact in health performance. For too long, the connection between our built environment and the health of a population has been undervalued. But the growing practice of developing sustainable places has illuminated the importance of aligning public health and urban planning, the purpose of which is to protect the health, safety and welfare of communities; and we are now seeing a greater understanding for the need to ally the two fields more closely.
A healthy community, as described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2010 report, is one that continuously creates and improves both its physical and social environments. Such communities allow people to support one another in aspects of daily life and to develop to their fullest potential. As someone on the frontline of the movement to fuse health and urban planning to affect our community and the environment at large, I believe Jacksonville is already such a place with the opportunity to develop further into a regional example of what a healthy, sustainable community can be.
This idea was driven home for me while participating in the recent chamber of commerce trip featuring Houston’s robust healthcare industry centered on the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest collection of medical facilities, clinics, hospitals, research institutions, and schools in the world. It is a state-of-the-art facility housing the world’s best and brightest medical healthcare experts, drawing over 160,000 guests and 80,000 patients daily. While Houston is known in medical tourism as the “Healthcare Capital of the World,” its phenomenal growth and development as a city directly contradicts many of the recognized characteristics and principles of a ‘healthy community.’ When comparing influential environmental and social factors from air quality to the medically uninsured, Houston ranks near the bottom, nationally. It’s not difficult to make the connection between unchecked growth in the built environment and rising incidence of chronic health problems throughout our society.
Public health and urban planning are inherently related and most effective when conjointly employed. Urban planning, like public health, is a community-oriented practice that informs processes of growth management, development and land use. Holistic approaches to public health are complimented by urban planning’s resolve to improve the built environment. By focusing on reconstruction and renewal, transport, and environmental protection, for example, urban planners are equally as fundamental in maintaining and promoting community wellness as traditional public health officials. Without the efforts of growth management, such as assuring sufficient and affordable housing, protecting natural spaces, and providing reliable and safe utility access, basic health essentials for citizens would be void. The precautionary goals of public health cannot be realized without the infrastructure laid by thoughtful urban planning that improves the economic and social environments of communities, warranting that integrated approach to public health and urban planning must increasingly be taken.
The work of public health officials and urban planners is most successful when followed by developers who implement projects under responsible land use. The locations of schools and neighborhoods, use of natural spaces, and transportation infrastructure can be opportunities to improve community wellness.
In response to this relationship need so many of our nation’s cities are now confronting, The Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida, is successfully connecting with our region’s urban and rural communities to partner with other non-profits and civic and professional organizations to elevate comprehensive health as a priority. Recognizing that over one-third of our nation’s healthcare costs are fully preventable, and that our physical development pattern and auto-dependency has exacerbated this crisis, the Health Planning Council and planning, architectural, and landscape architectural design firm ELM are teaming up with the Urban Land Institute, for an important program on December 8 focused on the topic of Healthy Communities.Additionally, the Health Planning Council is debuting its Hale & Hearty 7K Running Series, identifying seven communities in the 7 Northeast Florida counties whose residents are modeling the 7 qualities* of a healthy and sustainable community.
The time is now for our leaders to recognize the importance and economic impact of healthy communities. The Health Planning Council is ready and willing to move this vision forward. For more information about the Health Planning Council, please visit www.hpcnef.org.
- These are the qualities of a health and sustainable community: have a unique sense of community and place; preserve and enhance valuable natural and cultural resources; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; expand the range of safe transportation (WalkScore of at least 65, public transportation, bicycle lanes), employment, and housing choices in a fiscally responsible manner; value long-range, region-wide sustainability rather than short-term, incremental, or geographically isolated actions; promote public health and safe & healthy communities; and encourage smiles, laughter and happiness.
Editorial by Dr. Dawn Emerick, Executive Director of the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida Inc.