A report from the American Planning Association ranked Raleigh as one of only two surveyed communities — and the only city in the country — to address at least 50 percent of specific public health topics in its 2030 Comprehensive Plan.
Raleigh’s plan addresses topics ranging from food and nutrition, to climate change, to mental health and recreation. The only plan addressing more elements belonged to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded the report, Comprehensive Planning for Public Health, based on nearly from nearly one thousand local governments. The goal was to identify comprehensive or sustainability plans that explicitly include public health goals, and to assess the current state of planning for public health by local governments.
“It’s always nice to be recognized,” said Ken Bowers, deputy director of the City Planning. “We hope to give public health an even more prominent role in our Comprehensive Plan as we bring forth future amendments.”
At first glance, comprehensive urban planning and public health are may not seem connected. But public health experts say clean air and water, exercise, healthy foods and exercise options are vital to public health. They argue people enjoy a higher quality of life — and maybe even more jobs — in a healthy city.
Healthy cities may have an edge when it comes to recruiting businesses investment, according to Rhonda Medows, chief medical officer for UnitedHealth Group. In a March 2011 Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Economic Development podcast, she said, “Employers have recognized the direct correlation of an employee’s health, or the health status of their family members, and productivity, absenteeism.”
Employee health care costs are also a factor, she added, because “the employer share of the health care premium that they contribute for their employees is rising as a reflection of chronic illnesses worsening or increasing.”
The APA report found most cities didn’t consult public health officials or documents to create their comprehensive plans.
According to Bowers, Raleigh planners met with county and local healthcare providers to develop its plan, but he believes “more can be done to incorporate the insights and objectives of the public health community going forward.”
Raleigh’s new development code should lead to more pedestrian-friendly development patterns, Bowers said. But he admits this is a difficult sell partly because local groups have organized to improve transit and bicycling, but not walking.
“I would think that one basic condition that ought to be met for healthy development is that you should be able to leave your front door and go for a walk without putting your safety in jeopardy,” Bowers said. “Too many developments in Raleigh fail this basic test.”
Barriers to Progress
The American Planning Association reports most local governments face two main barriers when attempting to address public health in comprehensive plans: lack of local and state government funding.
“We are fortunate that our council has funded such important implementation steps as the rewrite of the development code,” Bowers said. “The timely implementation of any capital program can always benefit from more funding.”
Saving Resources, Saving Dollars
One way Raleigh has been able to continue funding some sustainability projects, despite the economic downturn, is by using a Supplemental Sustainability Fund. Originally seeded with $1.5 million in 2007, the fund was designed to be self-replenishing and is intended to move conventionally designed projects into sustainable projects.
Paula Thomas, Raleigh’s sustainability initiatives manager, used a hypothetical swimming pool project to illustrate how the process works. If the city planned to design a swimming pool, but wanted to add stormwater collection or solar heaters, they would apply for a grant to fund the sustainable elements. After evaluation, funds may be awarded, but with the proviso that savings be documented and money saved or generated must go back into the fund.
Another successful approach to augmenting scarce funds is by making alliances with private industry. Cree, Carolina Solar Energy and Progress Energy have allied with the city to pursue projects, such as solar arrays on city buildings, which enhance the city’s air quality and reduce electrical costs without using municipal funds.
Until economic conditions improve, Raleigh’s ability to re-seed its own fund or enter into creative partnerships increases its chances of reaching planning and sustainability goals. The results could benefit the environment, city residents and recruiters alike.