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The Connection Between Health and the Built Environment

Throughout California, local officials make planning and land use decisions every week about their community. They consider such issues as: Can downtown be revitalized by providing a mix of commercial, retail and residential uses? Should a new townhome project be approved to replace a group of old industrial warehouses? How can streets and sidewalks be designed in a new residential neighborhood to make it safer for people to walk or bike to school, work and stores?

While these land use decisions affect the physical development of communities, they can also profoundly impact the health of people who live and work there.

Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and others have correlated the long-term decline in healthy eating habits and physical activity with rising rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma and other health issues. A growing body of evidence points to development practices and land use patterns as a major contributing factor in many illnesses, particularly when such practices and patterns discourage physical activity, restrict access to healthy foods and disproportionately expose neighborhoods to environmental pollutants that exacerbate health conditions such as asthma.

With the link between land use and public health clearly established, city officials have turned their attention to developing broad policies and general strategies to improve community design and building practices and reverse the negative trends related to physical inactivity, unhealthy eating and environmental hazards. Efforts to educate policy-makers, the media and the public about the problems and potential solutions are beginning to take root, as are efforts to bridge the professional and institutional barriers between the public health and planning and design professions.

At the 2006 League of California Cities Annual Conference, city officials passed a resolution directing the Institute for Local Government (ILG) to work with the League to develop resources to help local officials promote health within their communities. In response, ILG recently launched a new project titled Health and the Built Environment, funded through a generous grant from The California Endowment.

To assist city officials, the Health and the Built Environment project provides:

  • An online Healthy Communities center on the ILG website (at www.ca-ilg.org/healthycommunities) with information and links to resources provided by experts and partner organizations;
  • A Guide to Health and the Built Environment for Residents and Local Officials, currently being developed as part of ILG’s new series of publications on the basics of land use and planning; and
  • Active support of the League’s Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) campaign in partnership with the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and the Cities, Counties and Schools (CCS) Partnership.

In addition, at this year’s League of California Cities Annual Conference in San Jose, ILG will host its annual luncheon symposium on Sept. 17. A presentation on Health and the Built Environment will be followed by a panel discussion of leading experts and city officials involved in the healthy communities movement.

For more information on what you can do or to share the story about what your city is doing to promote better health in your community, visit the ILG website at www.ca-ilg.org/healthycommunities.