Planning Healthy Communities

Posted on: January 31st, 2014 by Special Contributor

By Anna Ricklin

Credit: Eric Smith. Captured Moments Photography

Credit: Eric Smith. Captured Moments Photography

As cities and towns grow and change, making the case for the preservation of historic places can be a challenge, and different arguments will make sense to different audiences. One of the best reasons, though, may be the improvement of human health. As planners, we strive to create denser, more walkable communities in places dominated by sprawl. This also gives us the opportunity to enhance, re-create, and preserve historic places for the health of the people who live there.  Not surprisingly, our paths cross frequently with the preservation community.  I’d like to offer a brief preview of how the planning community sees smart planning as a tool for creating healthy lifestyles, and how it intersects with goals of the preservation community.

Even in communities seemingly fully “planned”—places that have been built out for more than a generation—smart planning will play a critical part in achieving safe, walkable neighborhoods where people have access to healthy foods and basic services, not to mention connectivity to jobs and education. All of these factors, and more, in the built environment contribute to the overall health of residents, but how do we as planners actually do it? How can we talk about the health impacts of planning to a general audience who might not even be familiar with planning in the first place? How do we link issues like land use, transportation, housing, and historic preservation to health, which in and of itself is one of the most complex and personal subjects anyone can talk about?

We know that more than one-third (35.7 percent) of U.S. adults are obese and that a lack of physical activity – something we can affect through planning – is one of the major causes. We also know there are approximately 10 million motor vehicle crashes per year, resulting in approximately 2 million injuries and nearly 34,000 deaths (Source: 2009 Census data). While a number of these crashes are the result of drunk driving and other bad decisions an individual might make behind the wheel, nearly all are preventable, and many could be avoided through planning-related measures.

While we won’t go so far as to say planning represents a single magic bullet for these challenges – which also include ways to support healthy food choices, mental health, and positive social structures in our neighborhoods – better planning in the built environment can and must be a part of the solution.

The American Planning Association (APA) recently released a new set of tools to support planners, public health professionals, and the public for including health in the planning process. The Healthy Community Design Toolkit was developed in partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Community Design Initiative and APA’s Planning and Community Health Research Center. The toolkit is composed of four elements that work together to achieve the goal of planning with health in mind, and can be used by anyone interested in building the case for health – including those who aim to preserve the health of entire neighborhoods. While the toolkit does not specifically address planning in the context of older, historic neighborhoods, preservationists will recognize that many of the attributes that contribute to healthy lifestyles—walkability, open spaces, a mix of commercial and residential uses—are already found in historic neighborhoods, thereby offering an excellent platform for the application of the following tools.


  • The Healthy Community Design Checklist is a handout for planners and community leaders to use during public meetings or other gatherings where decisions are being made about land use. The checklist is a quick way to educate residents about healthy community design and to help them consider health during land-use discussions.
  • The Healthy Community Design PowerPoint Presentation supports the checklist by explaining to residents how community design can affect health and how to use the checklist during land-use discussions. You can customize it to include health data on a specific community using the How-To Guide.
  • The Creating a Health Profile How-To Guide helps find the health data of a community in order to develop a health “snapshot” of the community of interest. The data is useful for educating and promoting awareness of the health issues that most affect a community. The data can also help identify the most urgent health issues.
  • The Planning for Health Resources Guide provides resources for each of the topics included in the Healthy Community Design Checklist: Active Living, Food Choices, Transportation Choices, Public Safety, Social Cohesion, Social Equity, and Environmental Health.

Please share and download these resources to help integrate health into your planning process, whether you are a planner, public health professional, community resident, preservationist, or anyone in between. They are meant to be easy to use. Comments and feedback about how you may have applied the tools is welcome at

Anna Ricklin is manager of APA’s Planning and Community Health Research Center. Formerly, she promoted public transit, walking, and biking in Portland, Oregon. Later, she worked on transit planning and bike projects with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. She has a Master of Health Sciences degree from Johns Hopkins University.