Healthy Community Planning: A Planning Response to the Pandemic

Author: Amy Pow, MCIP


On the anniversary of declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, let’s pause and reflect!

COVID-19 has uncovered the reality of health disparities and racial injustices. People of color get hurt the most. Nationwide, the death rate of Latinos, Black and Native Americans are 2.5x higher than White Americans. This reality has raised serious questions: “What have these stark disparities to do with our profession? Have our past and current practices directly or indirectly inflicted painful disparities? How should we move ahead to integrate lessons learned?”

To answer them, we need to understand the relationships between built environments and health equity. We must dig deeper into what causes neighborhoods of color to become fertile grounds for diseases and pre-mature deaths. 

Many decades of neglected socio-economic and environmental conditions in poor neighborhoods remain unaddressed across our nation. These conditions become root causes of numerous chronic diseases, including immune system suppression. To confront disparities, our profession must change. We must examine how planning practices, including exclusionary zoning, have instigated inequities; and proactively make policy, systems, and environmental changes to address those root causes upfront.

How should we planners respond?

Healthy community planning offers a solution. It’s a goal and a process to simultaneously promote
health and equity. It requires our attention on:

1. Addressing root causes of health by integrating health into planning decisions and policies.

    • Incorporate health and equity considerations to improve the social, economic and
      environmental conditions.

    • Prioritize planning and investment decisions to support health.

2. Giving everyone the opportunities to live to the fullest.
Recognize health and neighborhood disparities, understand how planning decisions exacerbate them and implement equity-centric strategies to reverse them.

    • Consider health impacts in SEPA reviews by assessing negative impacts on underserved

    • Identify and implement mitigation actions with the affected populations.
3. Meaningfully empowering communities, particularly the underserved.

Take authentic community engagement seriously. The differences in one’s opportunity and freedom
to “control over destiny” would lead to health disparities. Shift our paradigm from “planning for the
people” to “planning with the people”

    • Make efforts to understand the needs, assets, and aspirations of underserved populations.

    • Work with diverse populations to strengthen their capacity for collective efficacy to plan and advocate for themselves.

    • Help communities understand how planning decisions affect their health.

4. Applying a health-in-all-policies approach to comprehensive planning.
Giving everyone a chance to live to the fullest by providing opportunities to thrive is the goal of healthy community planning. Here are six logic models recently developed by Pierce County Healthy Community Planning Interest Group to help planners integrate health into key comprehensive planning elements. Each model describes the relationship between the element and health and provides a menu of evidence-based policies/strategies to improve quality of life outcomes.

No one can undo the past overnight, but together we can commit to building a more inclusive and healthier future for our communities by:

  • Affirmatively put the health and welfare of the underserved populations first.

  • Take extra efforts to reflect the voices of the underserved.

  • Advance social, economic, and environmental justice and consider equity-centric strategies to address inequity.

  • Build integrated neighborhoods and abandon inequitable regulatory practices that continue to segregate communities.

  • Address health and equity impacts in decision-making.

  • Prioritize investments to address health disparities.

  • Give everyone fair opportunities to enjoy healthy neighborhoods and good quality of life.

  • Build communities in each step of the planning process.

  • Pursue authentic participatory planning by empowering communities to become resilient self-advocates.

  • Address displacement with incumbent residents before gentrification occurs.

If we could transform our planning practice to tackle the inequities laid bare by COVID-19, this pandemic would be a disguised blessing for our profession!