Equity at the Center of HIAs: An Emerging Planner’s Perspective

This post will be featured on APA’s Sustaining Places blog, so I wanted to share with my blog community here. Thanks for reading!

Today marks my third official week since beginning an internship with the American Planning Association at their Planning and Community Health (PCH) Center in Washington, D.C. Within these last two weeks I’ve been exposed to quite a whirlwind of information, events, conference calls, and meetings (including a few that had free food!). I have to say that I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to come to “work” where I get to learn about all the things I’m passionate about and research all the topics I’ve always wanted to investigate.

At PCH, there are several projects that I’m involved in, either directly or indirectly, and while there is lots of overlap amongst them, they each have their own unique focus! Many of the projects are still in the developing stages, which have allowed me to see where they have begun while simultaneously jumping in head first to drive them forward. These projects will promote webinars, fact-sheets, and toolkits that APA will share with fellow planners as well as the general public, which is part of their vision in leading research and education in the planning field.

One project, Health Impact Assessment’s Role in Planning, will analyze a targeted list of Health Impact Assessments (HIAs), their presence and effectiveness in the planning and public health fields, and address where they are headed in future planning strategies. Over the last 10 years, planning and public health have begun to collaborate, and there’s acceptance that these fields should in fact be working together. At the Planning and Community Health Center, we are working towards Health in All Policies (HIAP) by promoting public and community health strategies in planning, with HIAs being one tool.

A second project as part of Planning Tools for Health is producing tools to help public health and government officials, along with planners, in support of reaching healthier 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 within the next few months for the final fact sheet: Green Infrastructure for Community Health. Another project, Plan4Health, is a joint collaboration with the American Public Health Association and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can learn more about Plan4Health on their site, but in essence their goal is to foster “creative partnerships to build sustainable, cross-sector coalitions.”

This past week, I was able to attend the 3rd National HIA Meeting here in D.C. with fellow staff, where we could “choose our own adventure” and select sessions that aligned with our personal interests. The major theme throughout this conference was equity as part of all things considered health, and further, health planning. As a learning planning and policy student with a strong background in community organizing, I have always felt strongly towards 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) Through most of the sessions, equity, how to effectively include equity as a component in HIAs, and how to achieve equity in plans and policies was continuously reinforced.

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/or planning process, and further mirrored in the policies that stem from these fields. It was a refreshing reminder to hear from the diverse and overwhelmingly 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 cannot simply be hosting a public meeting, counting the attendees and checking it off as done.  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. 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.

While at the conference, I was able to meet with many key partners that are working with APA to propel the Health in all Policies movement forward, as well as the use of HIAs in the planning process. Senior Associate Ruth Lindberg of The PEW Charitable Trusts met with members of PCH to discuss the summary report of HIAs that will be released this fall. Rachel Banner, Program Manager at National Recreation and Park Association, was also another collaborator present at the conference, who recently spoke at an APA directed webinar about Safe Routes to Parks. 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 non-profit leaders.

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 all of us the importance of engagement, empowerment, and equity, and that we all need to be doing more to support more community-driven HIAs rather just community-engaged HIAs.

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

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