Public health leadership in sustainable community design: San Francisco

The design of our built environment has a major influence on public health outcomes ranging from asthma rates to childhood obesity. NACCHOPolicyLink and the Convergence Partnership hosted a webinar yesterday to help communities translate this evidence into action.

Dwayne Marsh, Senior Advisor to the HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, made it clear that public health departments can play a role in HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant applications — and in regional planning more broadly.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, spoke of efforts in San Francisco. Karen Nikolai, Community Design Liaison, spoke of work in Hennepin County, Minnesota.

The San Francisco story is below — check back tomorrow to learn how public health and sustainable development have converged in Hennepin County.

San Francisco

“We’ve built up public support for built environment issues [in San Francisco],” Dr. Bhatia explained. “Smart growth means something different; health is now a more normal piece of the sustainability agenda. We are able to implement health-protective changes in the design of urban plans. We started with almost no capacity to participate in urban planning, just the desire to do it. We had to learn and develop the skills to make those meaningful contributions.”

Today, San Francisco has integrated health staff into planning activities around the city and implemented improved impact assessment mandates. Two specific initiatives undertaken by the Department of Public Health are the Healthy Development Measurement Tool and Health Impact Assessments.

Healthy Development Measurement Tool

  • San Francisco created the Healthy Development Measurement Tool to assess the impact of urban development on public health. The Department of Public Health uses this information to inform policy and design strategy, choose development targets, and generate data that justifies why planners and political leaders should look at public health issues.
  • For more information, see the Healthy Development Measurement Tool website.

Health Impact Assessments

  • Similar to an Environmental Impact Assessment, this systematic assessment looks in-depth at specific policies to measure their health impacts and encourage informed decision making. For example, the Department has looked at how different road pricing policies affect air pollution, noise, pedestrian injuries, physical activity, and household finance.
  • For more information, see the Health Impact Assessment website.

San Francisco’s Department of Public Health website also has a variety of publications available that offer more detail on both of these tools.

Does the public health department in your state or local government play a role in your sustainability initiatives? Share your story in the comments below!