Regional community health assessments are a great tool for planning officials

A regional community health assessment is a great tool for understanding community health status and addressing these issues through planning and zoning.

Improving public health is a frequently-stated goal in many community master plans. But just what are the public health issues of greatest concern, how can they be addressed through planning and zoning and where is the data to support those concerns?

A great place to start is a regional community health assessment. The process for this assessment is local, led by either a local health department or hospital, and first involves compiling data from a variety of sources. This information is then analyzed and the most important strategic issues are identified. The assessment is used by community partners to develop action plans to address priority health issues. The community health assessment document includes a wealth of survey information, data charts and statistics that can be very relevant and useful during the master plan process, and subsequently for revising the zoning ordinance to help achieve plan goals. Assessments are available in all parts of Michigan, and a simple web search will find them.

The Northern Michigan 2012 Community Health Assessment is an excellent example of how the information in an assessment leads to planning and zoning change. That assessment includes data about social and economic indicators, health factors, risk behaviors, the environment and health outcomes for a ten-county area in northern Lower Michigan and the eastern Upper Peninsula.

The report identifies obesity as the highest priority issue in the area. One of the factors influencing obesity is access to fresh healthy food. Seventeen census tracts in the region were cited in the study – locations with limited places to purchase fresh, affordable food. Using information from the report, a coalition of health department officials, schools, municipal officials, planning commissioners, the downtown development authority, farmers, a community foundation and local citizens came together in the Village of Pellston (Emmet County) to seek solutions to this issue. The results were zoning changes to make farmers markets – a new source of fresh food for area residents - an allowable use in the village, and partners’ efforts to make a new market a reality.

Physical activity, or the lack of it, is another major factor in the region’s high obesity rate. Creating access to walkable, bikable areas and increasing the number of kids who walk to school are effective ways to address this problem. The master plan and zoning ordinance can help, first by identifying the issue and stating goals within the master plan, and then implementing zoning standards that support higher density and encourage creation of sidewalks and paths. Michigan State University Extension supports efforts such as complete streets and Safe Routes to School to offer additional tools to meet physical activity goals.

Regardless of how public health issues are addressed through planning and zoning, the need must be documented with data in the master plan. Community health assessment data and priorities can be included in the plan by reference, or specific elements can be printed and cited in the document.

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