Public Health and the Built Environment

Over the last few months, several public health professionals have suggested that the 2011 report – Public Health and Land Use Planning: How 10 Public Health Units are Working to Create Healthy and Sustainable Communities – continues to be useful and relevant resource today. One – a Manager in Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention (CDIP) in a public health unit in Ontario – suggested that more people in public health should be made aware of the report despite its age.

This 232-page report was produced for the Clean Air Partnership (CAP), in partnership with the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA), with funding from Ontario’s Healthy Communities Fund. Based on interviews with over 70 public health staff in 10 public health units (PHUs) in Ontario, the report examines the various ways in which ten PHUs were working to influence land use and transportation planning processes in their communities to make their communities healthier and more sustainable. 

Interviews were conducted with staff in four PHUs in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), two with urban/rural populations, three with rural populations, and one in Northern Ontario. Interviews were offered to all disciplines and teams within those PHUs that were working to influence the built environment. The 70 staff interviewed included policy staff, environmental health officers, health promoters, epidemiologists, nutritionists, managers, at least one director, and one Medical Officer of Health. Questions were asked about the outcomes sought, the strategies employed, the organizational structures utilized, and if any of the actions were directed towards the reductions of health inequities. They were also asked to share background and Board of Health reports produced on their work.

The report begins was a summary of the evidence linking the built environment to human health as mediated through six factors – impacts on physical activity, access to healthy foods, vehicle-related injuries, air quality, climate change and water quality. It includes one detailed chapter on the work of each of the ten PHUs. It ends with a discussion about the findings across all ten organizations. A 30-page summary report – Public Health and Land Use Planning – Summary was also produced.

The large report was intended as a capacity-building tool for public health professionals. The summary report was prepared to build awareness among other professionals in the municipal sector, community activists, and decision-makers about the many ways in which the built environment can impact human health, and about the many ways in which public health professionals can inform, influence and/or support land use and transportation planning processes.

By Kim Perrotta, February 20, 2022