Public health leadership in sustainable community design: Hennepin County, Minn.

During a NACCHO/PolicyLink/Convergence Partnership webinar held earlier this week, Karen Nikolai, Hennepin County (Minn.) Community Design Liaison, discussed the process that has established public health as a valued perspective in county sustainability efforts. (Yesterday, we summarized innovative efforts in San Francisco presented during the same session).

As Karen Nikolai explained, public health issues have a lot of overlap with sustainable community discussions, but the stakeholders approach the discussion from different perspectives and using different terminology. Bridging the language gap yields real community benefits. Public health leaders have a role to play in development decisions by measuring, for example, childhood obesity by zip code, fresh food access, and displacement of low income populations.

Strategies for public health agencies to think about when approaching planning agencies:

  • We know that the built environment impacts health. Talk about it; discuss what public health can contribute to the dialogue. Offer to brief planners.
  • Advocate for health and equity concerns
  • Hire a liaison or interagency staff member
  • Make life easier for planning staff as they apply for sustainability grants by providing data, talking about equity, bringing in the public, and tapping into other assets unique to your public health department

Karen Nikolai shared the Hennepin County process in detail, which is summarized below:

Hennepin County, Minnesota

Hennepin County Public Health Department’s formal involvement in built environment issues began with the establishment of an interdepartmental working group in 2003-2004. Members of the working group met with county commissioners and gained their support. Funding was secured for a full time position, with time divided 50/50 between public health and planning. Over time, extensive outreach to elected leaders and officials at key agencies led to the development of a coalition and strong working relationships.

Since 2006, BlueCross BlueShield has funded the active living partnership, joined now by a statewide health improvement partnership. In 2007, comprehensive plan updates were coming due (as state law requires), so the working group held multiple workshops on comprehensive planning. MinnDOT and Transit for Livable Communities received significant funding that provided an opportunity to bring many voices to the table and make active transportation the norm.

Ongoing workshops remain a critical tool to institutionalize active transportation as a planning priority. Workshops have involved mayors, planning directors, parks and recreation departments, and others. BlueCross BlueShield brought in experts on walking and biking, whil a complete streets workshop was attended by 75 people (Hennepin county was the first in the region to implement a county-level complete streets policy). Each workshop has been an opportunity to make connections, build working relationships, and grow the constituency for walking and biking infrastructure.

Visit the Active Living Hennepin County website here.

See Power Point slides from the webinar here.

Does the public health department in your state or local government play a role in your sustainability initiatives? Are you involving public health in your HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant application? Discuss your experiences in the comments below.