A Healthier Plan for the Land

By Blaire Bryant posted 02-06-2018 11:15

Counties in the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge are building healthier counties by using land use planning as a mechanism to increase physical activity, reduce obesity and improve mental health. Among the finalists of NACo’s Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge, four counties are piloting programs to improve the health of their residents through managing and reexamining land use and outdoor activity space.

According to Toni Carter, Healthy Counties Board Chair and Commissioner of Ramsey County MN, this innovative and holistic approach to health should be the standard. She explains, “I think …that health is the bottom line for counties, so all of the work that we do, whether it is in building bridges or roads or constructing public transportation systems or in work force or whatever area of work that we’re talking about has to do with our objectives for having healthy communities.”

The Health Department of Wyandotte County, KS is implementing a Healthy Community Corridor in the eastern part of the county, which includes Kansas City. John Hornbeck, a project manager with the Wyandotte County Health Department, cites studies from the American Public Health Association, Center for Disease Control, and other organizations showing that “outdoor physical activity” is a key component of mental and physical health among a population. He acknowledges the lack of infrastructure as a major impediment to active living in the community: “it is the area that has the greatest challenges as far as crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure for walking, cycling, any other kind of active transportation.”

Kids running

Steve Jarvis, County Commissioner of Davidson County, NC believes it is especially important to provide spaces for young people to be active. In addition to enlarging and adding more walking trails, Jarvis notes the county “added a splash pad in Southmont, which is a huge hit for the kids, something they haven’t had.” Projects such as this can make children excited about outdoor physical play, and hopefully reduce the obesity rate. Jarvis encourages kids to “Get outside. Interact. Find out there’s a world behind something of just the computer.”

Bennett Knox, the Metro Parks Administrator for Louisville, KY wants to go encourage children to interact with the outdoors. The parks department is training a cadre of young adults to assist in department programs, especially those in environmental education and outdoor activities catering toward youth. Knox hopes that the young adult workers can better connect with the youth from their communities to spark interest in learning about the environment and outdoor play. Through the promotion of outdoor recreation, the department hopes to encourage its children to live healthier and more active lives. According to Knox: “I think the key is getting children engaged at an early age and then making sure they have sustained opportunities…over their entire childhood, moving into middle school and high school, and if you can do that, then you’re really kind of instilling that – that ethic of nature and willingness to get out and experience it and explore it. That’s going to carry forward.”

Chatham County, NC is building a more active community. Because of the rapidly urbanizing nature of the county, changes in county land-use policies made now will guide future development toward more walkable communities. This will be a twofold solution to challenges with obesity and accessibility in more rural areas of the county. Jim Crawford, Chairman of the Chatham County Commission and liaison to the county Board of Health says he hopes to create nodes, or concentrated areas of commercial and residential development, in rural areas. The goal is to create neighborhoods that make everyday essentials accessible by foot, and therefore increase the rate of physical activity in these areas. Crawford says, “I would like to be able to see that, as our population grows and more houses are being built, that the developers are embracing this notion of having more walkable communities.”