What does it mean to consider health when we plan our cities? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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What does it mean to consider health when we plan our cities?

Flickr user John Picken Photo (CC)

Chicago's 2010 Bike the Drive

Up to 80% of your health is influenced by the environment around you: the physical condition of your housing, the design of your streets, the types of transportation that are available to you, whether you can see trees from your window and the quality of the air around you, to name a few.

What if your local government or planning organization took health into account when planning your city? How would that change the decisions its staff make and projects they prioritize?

MPC is beginning to think about how health can be highlighted in the work we do.

Here’s an example. A city is considering adding lanes to a major highway in order to address congestion. The highway runs through several residential areas. Considered solely from the perspective of traffic, it might seem like a straightforward decision to expand the highway. However, when the health lens is applied, perhaps expanding the highway will lead to more car use and increase air and noise pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods, which negatively affect health. Bringing health into the decision-making process might change the priorities of the city. Developers may still go ahead with the project, but take precautions such as planting more trees along the highway to serve as sound barriers and to capture carbon.

The links between policies that dictate the physical environment and health might seem clear, but health can also be considered in decisions that at first seem totally unrelated.

What is Health in All Policies?

Considering the effect of a policy on human health is not a new concept, but more cities are adopting formal processes for doing just that. These techniques are often referred to as a Health in All Policies approach.

Eward Ehlinger

A visual representation of Health in All Policies


Among the recommendations, several are directly related to planning and development: In 2016, Chicago’s City Council passed a Health in All Policies resolution, committing to take a Health in All Policies angle to decision-making across all departments. A taskforce was also created to develop recommendations for how to put Health in All Policies into action. In August 2017, the Taskforce released a report with recommendations about how to move Health in All Policies forward at the City level.

  • Active design. Implementing active design features in the planning and construction of buildings and infrastructure. For example, the Morgan Street L station here in Chicago improved the quality and safety of surrounding sidewalks to encourage walking, and uses glass canopies on the platform to increase natural light.
  • Proactive housing inspections to identify health hazards earlier. For example, Sacramento, CA enforced a proactive Rental Housing Inspection program, and reported that dangerous building cases fell by 22% between 2008 and 2013.
  • Zoning and licensing code review that includes assessing the health impacts of zoning and adjusting it to improve health. A tangible example of how zoning can protect health is licensing and zoning regulations that restrict tobacco from being sold at stores within a certain distance of a school. Boston, MA recently conducted a health impact review of their new comprehensive zoning code to maximize its potential to improve health.
  • Health impact reviews. Create a mechanism by which departments can request an assessment of the health impacts of their proposed projects, policies, and ordinances.
  • Including health criteria in public requests for proposals (RFP) and requests for qualifications (RFQ). The Cook County Land Bank, along with help from MPC and the Chicago Department of Public Health, plan to include health criteria in the RFP for the historic bank building in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

Working toward health in all policies will require buy-in from planning and development organizations. While groups like MPC may not be required to do a health impact assessment of our plans and the policies we advocate, we should strive to incorporate these criteria and make health considerations a priority.

Working toward health in all policies will require buy-in from planning and development organizations.

MPC is beginning to think about how health can be highlighted in the work we do. Our Cost of Segregation team is working on recommendations to increase equity on the basic elements of health (housing, economic development, transportation, safety, education and public health). Our transportation team is gearing up to study paratransit in Chicago. Our Equitable Transit-Oriented Development team is working to integrate health into our Corridor Development Initiative process. The Great Rivers Chicago team is considering how a riverfront trail can improve residents’ economic, physical and mental health.

As a public health professional, I’ll be tracking public health for MPC as we infuse the issue into all of our work. A holistic approach to urban planning at all levels promises the healthiest Chicagoland.

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