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July 20, 2015 7:38 PMCategory: Nutrition, Physical Activity

An Emerging Planner’s Perspective on HIAs: Part One

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This marks my sixth week since beginning a summer internship at the American Planning Association with the Planning and Community Health (PCH) Center in Washington, D.C. Within these last five weeks I’ve been exposed to a whirlwind of information, events, conference calls, and meetings. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to come to “work” and learn about the things I feel most passionate about and research many of the topics I’ve always wanted to investigate.

There are several projects that I’m involved in with PCH, either directly or indirectly, and while many of them overlap, they each have their own unique focus. A few of the projects are still in the developing stages, which has allowed me to see how a new project takes shape,  while simultaneously jumping in head first to drive them forward. These projects will provide resources that APA members and the general public can use to further integrate health considerations into their planning efforts.

One project, Health Impact Assessment’s Role in Planning, is analyzing Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) to better understand their effectiveness in the planning and public health fields and how planners can utilize HIAs as a tool for ensuring plans, policies, and decisions account for potential health impacts. The preliminary analysis shows the use of HIAs as a tool has declined over the last two years but experienced tremendous growth between 2010-2012. Planning-related HIAs represent more than a third of the total HIAs conducted in the United States. This is a laudable achievement for planning and health professionals.

As part of Planning Tools for Health, the PCH Center is producing tools to help planners, public health professionals, and government officials achieve their vision of healthy communities for all. So far, two fact sheets have been produced: Health into the Comprehensive Planning Process and Safe Routes to Parks. Be on the lookout in the next few months for the final fact sheet: Green Infrastructure for Community Health.

Recently, I was able to attend the 3rd National HIA Meeting here in D.C. with the rest of the PCH staff. Equity was the major theme throughout this conference. As a planning and policy student with a background in community organizing, I have always felt strongly about the importance of effective community engagement as part of the planning and policy processes.

For clarity purposes, the CDC Health Equity Guide states that “Health equity means that every person has an opportunity to achieve optimal health regardless of: the color of their skin, level of education, gender identity, sexual orientation, the job they have, the neighborhood they live in, and whether or not they have a disability” (p. 2) Throughout most of the sessions, how to effectively include equity as a component in HIAs and achieve equity in plans and policies was continuously reinforced. Relevant breakout sessions I attended among the many that discussed equity were: The Participatory Planning Process in HIAs, HIA and Comprehensive Planning in Rural Settings, and Building HIA Capacity in the Southeast.

Standing among so many professionals from various sectors, I was deeply moved by the belief that equity should always be part of the public health and planning processes, and ingrained in the policies that govern these fields. Equity is about making sure that throughout the planning process — not just the engagement piece, but the entire start to finish — those directly affected by the plan are in “the driver’s seat,” as so eloquently put by Lead Organizer of ISAIAH Phyllis Hill. It was a refreshing reminder to hear from the diverse and dedicated speakers that we should always be striving to effectively engage within our communities that will be affected by the plans and policies produced. Community engagement is not simply hosting a public meeting, counting the attendees, and checking it off as done. We all were left reinvigorated to continue our work with more passion and a greater commitment to equity and, though we may be in different sectors, are all still committed to the belief that zip codes should never determine a person’s health.

At the conference, I was able to meet with many of the key partners working with APA to propel the Health in all Policies movement forward. Senior Associate Ruth Lindberg of The PEW Charitable Trusts met with the PCH staff to discuss the summary report of HIAs that will be released this fall. Many coalition members of Plan4Health were present throughout the various breakout sessions, as well as authors of the various HIAs that APA is researching. Besides planners, sessions were filled with leaders from public health, environmental agencies, sustainability departments as well as an array of epidemiologists, policy writers and analysts, elected officials from local, state and federal levels, community organizers, and nonprofit leaders; all showing their commitment to working across sectors for greater health equity for all.

In closing, wise words were spoken by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Program Officer Pamela Russo, “Multiple sectors need to work together to make health and well-being a national priority.” Rebecca Morley, Director of Health Impact Project, reminded us of the importance of engagement, empowerment, and equity, and that we all need to be doing more to support community-driven HIAs rather than just community-engaged HIAs.

All of us at PCH were honored to take part in the National HIA Meeting. If you would like more information about any of the projects mentioned, please visit APA’s Planning and Community Health Center site.

Image: Photo by Pixabay user Darko Stojanovic.