Planning for Healthier Cities

By Maggie Haslam / Mar 26, 2021 / Updated Mar 30, 2021

New project will provide community planners a “how-to” for integrating health-boosting green infrastructure

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Picture of an urban green space
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Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

A growing body of evidence shows that green infrastructure—the tree canopies, parks and neighborhood gardens dotting our urban landscapes—can transform human mental and physical health. Often called urban forests, research shows they reduce respiratory diseases and urban temperatures, curb obesity and lower levels of depression and anxiety. What is less understood is how to translate these findings into the practice of planning healthier cities. Now, a partnership between UMD’s Environmental Finance Center (EFC), the American Planning Association (APA) and the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences will offer guidance for planners, healthcare organizations and policymakers on the spatial characteristics of urban forests and other green spaces that can maximize community health benefits.

Sponsored by a Resilience Grant for Urban Forests from the United States Forest Service, the three-year project will combine the expertise of EFC Program Manager Dr. Jennifer Egan, University of Washington Research Social Scientist Dr. Kathleen Wolf and Dr. Sagar Shah, a planning and community health manager at the APA. Tapping other experts in the planning and health policy fields, the project will produce a roadmap to specifically guide the functional and comprehensive planning process, including case studies and successful strategies as well as a set of principles to guide communities of varying geographies and sizes.

“This type of connection between the urban forest health benefit research and the planning community does not exist; it has just not translated well into practice,” says Egan. “How do we say we’re designing spaces with human health in mind? What space do we need? What kind of experience is important and how long does it need to last to be meaningful?”

It is a nuanced process, explains Egan, and not as simple as slapping trees on a median strip or placing a park in the middle of a city. Planners must consider issues of connectivity to the landscape, such as points of access and proximity, size, environmental qualities and social qualities, such as places to sit or engage in activities. A compilation of indicators and examples of how they are used in practice, will help to better plan green infrastructure or modify existing plans to maximize healthy outcomes. The report, Egan says, can also connect the dots between positive health outcomes, green infrastructure and implementation for the healthcare industry in meeting community-rooted health goals (social determinants of health or SDoH), spurring interest and investment.

The project team hopes these principles of practice will be particularly useful in the planning and management of urban forests in what they call High Potential Communities, areas where the addition of green space would assure equitable access to the mental and physical health benefits of green infrastructure. These groups, which include low-income and minority communities, are historically disinvested, yet are at a greater risk for health issues.  

“There are a lot of good opportunities to make a difference in areas that lack greenspace be planned with health in mind,” says Egan.

In addition to the guide, the EFC’s Municipal Online Stormwater Training (MOST) Center will be creating a short course on the finished document for agency planners and stakeholders. Egan, whose interests lie in funding and financing green infrastructure, also expects that the project will push a narrative she has been communicating for years.

“Green spaces are good for people’s health, but they’re also good for the economy,” she says. “How people experience green spaces translates to economic benefits. There are a lot of avenues where this can go.”

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