Weaving Health into the Land Use Planning Process: One Story

In 2006, I was hired by a health department in a regional municipality in southern Ontario to integrate public health’s priorities, particularly those associated with air quality and physical activity, into the land use planning process.  Early on in my new position, health department staff met with the Manager of Long-Range Planning from the planning department.  We asked him to tell us where in the planning process we needed to get involved in order to address our priorities.  The Manager responded by telling us: “You need to be involved in every step in the process.  It is the only way that you will understand what needs to be done and how to influence the process.”

From that point forward, health department staff were invited, along with staff from other regional departments, to participate in two planning exercises: one to conform with the Province’s Places to Grow plan; and one to review the Regional Official Plan.

At the first stage in the process, we learned that background papers were prepared by external consultants and/or staff on issues such as agriculture, transportation, housing, and population and employment density. The two departments agreed that the health department would prepare four  background papers: one on air quality and the built environment; one on physical activity and the built environment; one on community food security; and one on healthy communities principles.  These background papers were taken out for public and agency consultation by the planning department along with all of the other background papers.

In the second stage of the process, the health department offered detailed comments on the language in the existing Regional Official Plan on issues such as climate change adaptation, land use compatibility and air quality, walkability, access to transit, the energy efficiency of buildings, and the accessibility of greenspace, recreational facilities, and services including stores that sell fresh foods.

In the third stage, we learned that policy papers were prepared on specific issues identified from the first round of papers and consultation.  It was agreed that the health department would prepare two policy papers: one on land use compatibility and air quality, which addressed, among other things, concerns that the health department had about high levels of air pollution along high traffic corridors; and one which examined the criteria that could be enshrined in official plans, secondary plans and/or implementation guidelines to help create walkable and transit-supportive communities. These papers were also taken out for consultation by the planning department along with the others papers.

The Regional Official Plan Amendment, which was adopted in December 2009, included a number of new or revised policies that are important to the creation of healthy and sustainable communities.  Among these were policies that required the development of three implementation guidelines that would be applied to all development across the Region: one on healthy communities; one on compatible land uses; and one on air quality impact assessments.  These guidelines are currently under development and the health department remains actively engaged in that process.

During this period, staff in the health department also began providing comments on secondary plans, subdivision plans, site plans, transportation master plans and cycling plans from an air quality and physical activity perspective.  All of this on-going review and policy work has built upon the research that went into the health department’s background papers, demonstrating for me the wisdom of the advice offered by that Manager of Long-Range Planning.

Relationships between public health units and municipalities vary across the province, as do health priorities and resources.  We would like to hear from you.  Are public health and planning staff collaborating in your communities, and if so, how and where is that working for the creation of healthy and sustainable communities?

Prepared by Kim Perrotta