Two women walking

Healthy built environments can help encourage healthy behavior. Photo by PhilipsPhoto, courtesy iStockphoto

At this morning’s Annual Meeting session, “Keys to a Healthy Built Environment: Lessons from the Field,” panelists from the planning, landscape, architecture, affordable housing and parks and recreation sectors spoke to a packed room of public health professionals.

“We may be from diverse backgrounds, but we meet at the intersection of design and health,” said moderator David Rouse, managing director of research and advisory services at the American Planning Association.

Panelists talked about the communities they serve, how they advance health and address health equity in their planning and development work and what the public health sector can do to help achieve a better quality of life and greater health equity through the built environment.

Ayako Utsumi, founding consultant with Valon Consulting in Los Angeles, urged public health professionals to offer solutions to the challenges that small-scale developers face when trying to build health into lower-income neighborhoods. “We need to find small, practical and affordable ways to help the most vulnerable achieve better health right now,” she told attendees.

Tomas Herrera-Mishler, CEO and president of the Balboa Park Conservancy in San Diego, spoke of the important role that the park plays in promoting health and well-being among its 26 million annual visitors. “We are able to advocate for the park to city officials by quantifying the health and economic impacts of its recreational offerings — like $44 million in health care saved through community use,” Herrera-Mishler said. “That creates buy-in.”

Philip Bona, senior architect with AVRP Skyport in San Diego, offered best practices and case studies that support healthy workforce and low-income housing. “Architects need to be part of the conversation and public debate on housing affordability, density, design and growth,” he said. “Housing equity has an impact on public health.”

As 2017 president of the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Bona played a central role in Housing YOU Matters, a coalition of nonprofits, associations, housing advocates, government officials and businesses that addresses the city’s housing availability, design and cost — which is among the top five highest in the nation.

Clement Lau, planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation in Alhambra, California, talked about how parks and public health are working together to advance health and wellness in Los Angeles County. From parks needs assessments to community parks and recreation plans and the Parks After Dark program, public health and parks partnerships are driving development, Lau told session attendees.

For example, Lau said officials conducted 100 meetings as part of its countywide parks needs assessment and helped six of the most park-poor communities develop community park and recreation plans, ultimately reaching 250,000 residents in need of green space and healthy recreational options.

“We are moving from separation of departments to collaboration, and we are committed to serving those most in need,” he said. “One big benefit to partnering with public health for us has been increased community engagement.”

For more on health and the built environment, visit www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/environmental-health/healthy-community-design.