Are Planners Responsible for Public Health?

Could planners have an effect on waistlines around the Beltway? Maryland’s Prince George’s County and Virginia’s Fairfax County are examining how land use and transportation policy can be modified to promote more healthy and safe environments — potentially improving long-term health outcomes as a result.

In Prince George’s, where 50 percent of children are either obese or overweight, the County Council unanimously voted to make the Port Towns area a “wellness opportunity zone.” Wellness Opportunity Zones are intended to encourage local communities to make health a priority in planning decisions. The Port Towns Community Health Partnership, funded by Kaiser Permanente, is taking this a step further by working to change municipal zoning codes in order to encourage walkability, bikeability, and access to recreational areas throughout the four Port Towns.

In Fairfax, the county’s Partnership for a Healthier Fairfax has reviewed how local land use and transportation policies could be modified to promote a more healthy and safe environment and reduce health inequities. The partnership to date includes over 80 community stakeholders, including Reston Interfaith, Northern Virginia Urban League, and the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning.

It’s becoming a familiar refrain that a zip code often does, but should not, determine a person’s health, an idea we explored in the spring 2012 issue of Shelterforce. As Greater Greater Washington, a DC-area blog covering issues related to walkable communities, puts it, improving health needs to include “transportation policy, street-scale improvements, and access to places suitable for physical activity.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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