Friday, September 30, 2016

City Planning, Healthy Habits, and the Broad Field of Public Health

To improve health, we need to be thoughtful about city design, a series of articles published in the Lancet says. This may seem like a strange juxtaposition, but in fact, city planning has been an important aspect of public health since the beginning. A press release about the series, published by the American Journal of Managed Care, explains:
"With the world’s population estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and three quarters of this population living in cities, city planning must be part of a comprehensive solution to tackling adverse health outcomes," series author Professor Billie Giles-Corti, University of Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement. "City planning was key to cutting infectious disease outbreaks in the 19th century through improved sanitation, housing and separating residential and industrial areas. Today, there is a real opportunity for city planning to reduce non-communicable diseases and road trauma and to promote health and wellbeing more broadly."
Thanks to my time at VA, I've gotten to learn more about this broad field known as public health. This field covers many aspects of understanding and improving health - everything from how diseases spread to understanding health habits to interventions that improve health. And the diseases they study also range from communicable - diseases you can "catch" from others - to noncommunicable - a broad category that includes lifestyle diseases (like Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease) and accidental injuries (car accidents). City planning has the potential to prevent these noncommunicable diseases, by encouraging physical activity, promoting healthy eating, and creating a safe environment that minimizes traffic accidents. Even pollution and noise levels need to be considered, as these also contribute to physical and mental health.

In fact, city planning is immensely important when considering lower income housing sections, which historically have had limited green space, poor (or no) walking paths, and other safety concerns that keep people from spending time outside and/or engaging in physical activity, as well as limitations in healthy food choices. This only serves to increase health disparities between high and low income individuals. Just as in the past, public health efforts improved living conditions especially for individuals living in low income sections, thoughtful planning is needed today.

The important thing to keep in mind in terms of public health is that improving population health has far-reaching benefits, like increased productivity and decreased disability. Obviously, it's difficult to put a price on the quality-of-life benefits, but for those who think more in terms of tax dollars spent, spending money to improve living conditions actually does pay for itself.

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