Built Environment and Public Health – Planning the Way Forward

Oct 30, 2012, 9:04 PM

Children using the sidewalk to get to school.

Complete streets, mass transit and active communities were the buzzwords at a well-attended APHA session on Tuesday, dealing with the role of planning and built environment to improve health outcomes.

Several presenters took turns describing physical activity, public transportation and urban planning in different areas of the United States and how policies implementing these strategies can improve the public’s health.

Mary Thomas, of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, noted that 1 out of every 3 children, and 2 out of every 3 adults in her city are obese – which was one of the reasons San Antonio decided to implement a Complete Streets policy to promote healthy living and safe mobility.

Thomas noted that the implementation of the Complete Streets policy required collaboration on a larger scale than the city had ever seen: “We used an interagency work group, with every group from the Public Work Departments, to the Office of Environmental Policy, to Parks & Rec, to the Office of Historic Preservation. There was a lot of collaboration. This was probably the first time all these groups had come together in San Antonio.”

Jim Stimpson of the University of Nebraska Medical Center chose to focus his presentation on public transportation – and how it concretely saves lives.

“95 percent of transportation dollars go to roads,” he noted. “But there are 33,000 motor vehicle deaths a year in the United States. And there are less than 150 fatalities on rail and bus combined.”

“We need incentives that make driving more expensive and public transit more attractive,” he continued.

“Increase the use and scope of mass transit should be branded as a crucial public health tool to reduce injuries and death.”

Vicky Johnson-Lawrence of the University of Michigan moved away from transportation and streets, and discussed the effect of social and physical environments on health and physical activity.

“Environments influenced physical activity, of course,” she said. But she noted that social environments also affect physical activity. Social interactions, connectedness to others, and more factors can also increase an individual’s likelihood to be physically active. For example, neighborhoods that held frequent community gatherings and activities with residents transferred into greater physical activity for the residents of those areas.

“Policies must focus on aspects of both the social and the built environment,” Johnson-Lawrence concluded.

Also read: Working with Non-traditional Partners on Complete Streets

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.