City Planning and Health: Q&A With Harriet Tregoning, D.C. Office of City Planning

Jan 10, 2012, 6:48 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

 Tregoning Harriet Tregoning, Director of the D.C. Office of City Planning

Tomorrow, Leadership for Healthy Communities will be hosting a webinar called Making the Connection: Linking Economic Growth to Policies to Prevent Childhood Obesity. The webinar will highlight the important links between economic growth and public health, and look at ways to implement policies that improve both. In advance of the webinar, NewPublicHealth spoke with Harriet Tregoning, Director of the Washington D.C. Office of City Planning , about efforts to make the district "a walkable, bikeable, eminently livable, globally competitive and sustainable city."

NewPublicHealth: How did city planners come to view health as part of their mission, and why is that important?

Harriet Tregoning: City planners increasingly take a broad view of their purview. So it’s not just the physical layout of the city, but also what kind of results for cities and their residents do plans produce. It’s clear that obesity is a growing epidemic, and for municipalities, in most cases, one of the most quickly rising costs is health care. So figuring out how to plan cities for the best health outcomes is on the agenda of most city planners.

NPH: What city planning activities are now underway in Washington, D.C., that address childhood obesity prevention?

Harriet Tregoning: We’re looking at things like access to fresh and healthy foods. We look to actively identify parts of the city that might be considered food deserts and provide incentives, zoning changes if needed and recruiting efforts. Sometimes we can do things in the short term, such as farmers' markets. In the long term we’re looking to add full-service supermarkets. At least a dozen have been added in the last six years.

Where zoning can help is that we might do things like zone areas of the city for commercial use or mixed use where previously the area was zoned as industrial or residential. That would allow grocery stores or encourage development of grocery stores with residential units on top. It has become the rule that grocery stores moving into the city have more residential units on top.

NPH: Have you already seen changes in health outcomes because of the planning changes?

Harriet Tregoning: It’s a little bit hard to say on health outcomes. For many adults, especially middle income adults, we have very low rates of obesity. For children, especially poor children, that has not yet been the case. But also apparent in D.C. is that we’re adding a lot of new residents who are attracted to the city because of the mixed zoning and a lot of transportation choices—the largest number of bus routes in the country. Are healthy people attracted to places where there are healthy options, or are we making places healthier? Through a combination of factors, we end up doing very well for many adults, but still not so great for our low-income kids.

NPH: Given the challenging economic climate, are there low-cost ways cities can address obesity?


Harriet Tregoning: Many of the things we’ve implemented are low cost. Our bike share program, for example, pays for itself. Operating costs are paid for by user fees, which are $75 to join, and the first half hour is free. The city would be willing to offer discounted fees where appropriate, so as we grow the bike share program, we’re looking to target neighborhoods where transportation choices are lacking. We’re working on barriers, such as use of credit card to use the bike share program. Debit cards are an option, but that’s a challenge for many of our lowest income households, so we’re trying to get around that issue.

Another low cost project is organizing. Health is an issue that residents continually raise and they want activities such as a walking school bus—parents walking their kids together to school—or organized exercise that they can take part in together, which can help change normative behavior in those neighborhoods. Walking, biking and taking mass transit is the new normal in D.C.; fewer than half of trips in our city right now are by car.

NPH: What ideas have come from other cities?

Harriet Tregoning: Lots of these ideas come from a lot of different cities. An idea from San Francisco pushed us to get rid of the parking minimum for many buildings, which can increase the cost of an apartment by $40,000 to $70,000. D.C. no longer requires housing units near transportation options, in many cases, to have minimum parking requirements and we allow projects to share parking with other buildings.

The changes are so apparent. When I moved to D.C. twenty years ago, there were about three or so districts that had great livability and now there are dozens.

NPH: What partnerships have been effective so far?

Harriet Tregoning: Food is a great example. Some restaurants are forming non-profits for the distribution of produce from dozens of small farms who might not be able to afford to distribute themselves. The food is then distributed to the restaurants as well as to D.C. schools for breakfasts and lunches—to help children develop lifelong habits that include healthier foods.

>>Find out more about the Leadership for Healthier Communities webinar, featuring Harriet Tregoning and others, here. The webinar will take place Wednesday, January 11, at 2:00 p.m. ET.

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