New Tools Spotlight Healthy City Design

Bringing public health into urban planning. 

Ann Arbor's urban canopy (Photo by Dwight Burdette) 

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In light of growing recognition that where we live often affects our health in ways both positive and negative, the American Planning Association has released a new set of resources for bringing public health into public planning. Published by the APA’s Planning and Community Health Center, the resources focus on health impact assessments, or HIAs, a process that can help planners understand the potential risks and benefits of a proposed plan on public health.

Earlier this year, the APA released a report looking at the current usage of HIAs in planning. It’s a six-stage process involving data collection and analysis and conversations with elected officials, planners, public health practitioners, residents and community members. In a July 2016 report, the APA found that the use of HIAs in planning increased steadily from just one conducted in 2004 to 23 in 2014.

These HIAs were used to address community plans such as zoning and development regulations, new facilities, land use, transportation, alcohol and food regulations, and public finance. An HIA was utilized as part of a comprehensive urban tree canopy plan for Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Omaha, the process informed a plan to zone for creating walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. In Topeka, Kansas, an HIA was part of measuring the potential health effects of expanding liquor licenses to grocery stores.

The APA’s new toolkit helps walk planners through the HIA process. It begins by emphasizing the overlapping values between planning and measuring impacts on community health. Both emphasize sustainability, for example: “HIA provides a way to critically assess how plans, policies and projects will affect sustainable development to meet the needs of the current population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” reads the report.

The APA believes HIAs can improve the planning process in four major ways: improve data, promote citizen engagement, provide opportunities for cross-sector collaboration and reframe what can be contentious issues around health goals. The toolkit then walks breaks down each step of the process, from determining whether an HIA is appropriate for a particular project, through deciding the scope of the HIA, to undertaking a comprehensive assessment, and to monitoring and evaluating the results of a project.

At the core of the HIA is measuring what impact a project will have on an array of health determinants, including walkability, safety, green space and air quality. Using community input and data, planners assess whether how likely an impact is, whether the impact will be positive or negative, how many people will be affected, and how severely and equitably they’ll be affected.

Read the report here and explore the toolkit here.

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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Tags: urban planninghealth

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