Intersections between Health, Urban Planning, and Community Development: A Retrospective View
Cities have changed dramatically over the course of my 25-year career. With policy changes, urban planning advances, and new lifestyle trends, cities are drawing more residents with higher levels of education and higher incomes. At the same time, these social and economic shifts are deepening the inequality gap, and in many cases, forcing displacement as new, wealthier homes are built or older homes refurbished for those who are willing to pay for what was abandoned by previous generations.
As cities have changed, research and practice focusing on the relationships between physical space, social context, and life outcomes also have evolved. Increasingly, health is a component of this work. When I entered graduate school, I already had experience working with housing, homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, disabilities, and social policy. Due to my age, none of that work was deep, but it provided a broad view of ripple effects, unintended consequences, and an awareness that solutions do not sit within one industry, one discipline, or one particular approach. This early experience showed me that planning is ultimately about people, and that health and human services are an important component of the day-to-day environment designed by planners, architects, and even the finance industry. Urban studies was the perfect multidisciplinary program to tackle the complexities of cities, the vast and various needs of their populations, and to insert a new conversation into planning…one of health access.
Earlier in my career, I moved from New Orleans to Chicago, and formed a consulting practice specifically aimed at bridging the gaps between community development and health. I dreamed of linking the efforts of the American Planning Association and the American Medical Association. But, I found the doors to cross-cutting health and community planning work had yet to open. Planners asked why they should care about health; medical practitioners asked why they should care about planning. Anyone who pays attention to trends knows that this is no longer the case.
I believe that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has played a significant role in building the link between urban planning and health access, and my association with New Connections has strengthened my professional growth at the intersection of these fields. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I had returned to New Orleans to volunteer on the initial recovery effort, and served on the land use and health and human services committees. While searching RWJF’s website for resources, I stumbled upon the New Connections CFP. The deadline was in three days. In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have bothered. But these were extraordinary circumstances, and I desperately wanted funding to observe and record how an entire city would rebuild and understand the implications of decisions or inaction on health. I held my breath as I drafted my proposal. I cried when utilities failed in the final hours. I sat numbly when I finally pushed “submit,” and then I questioned my own mental wellness. The research wasn’t funded – I moved on.
Later, an invitation to attend the first New Connections symposium arrived. That invitation remains one of the most significant moments in my career as a non-academic scholar. It validated my work as a practitioner, and I learned that my observations from the field are potentially as valuable as data collected during rigorous research projects.
Words cannot describe the chaos of post-Katrina disaster work, but it put me on the path to engaging with community and economic development agencies at all tiers of government and with many public-private partnerships. This experience led me to reapply for New Connections funding. My overly ambitious research project tackled the gaps between housing, community development, and health.
It’s an exciting time, as cross-cutting work continues to be developed. RWJF’s new focus on building a Culture of Health is an extraordinary example of how far we have come in understanding health beyond the confines of the health care system and health data. But as far as we’ve moved the conversation, we still have a long way to go for the work to permeate the day-to-day decisions of industries and their impact on people and place. Fortunately, more funders, researchers, and leaders are stepping into the intersections and quite frankly, the intersections are as dynamic as they are challenging. These intersections are where I’ve spent the bulk of my career, and the New Connections 10 year anniversary has renewed my commitment.