Behind the Scenes of the Fourth Regional Plan: Envisioning Healthy Communities

When the staff at RPA began working on Fourth Regional Plan, we set out to craft a long-term vision for the New York metropolitan area focused on four major challenges: expanding economic prosperity and opportunity; creating communities that are more secure and livable; reducing our vulnerability to severe weather and climate change; and improving our financial, institutional and regulatory structures so that smart solutions can actually be implemented.

That’s a tall order, and that remains our goal. But a year into our research and conversations with many groups and individuals around the region, it’s become clearer to us that we need to give more prominence to issues such as public health, which cuts across all these challenges.

The question of how the Fourth Plan will address the issue of public health, and what policies or investments the plan might propose to ensure the health of the region’s residents was on the minds of many of the more than 150 Connecticut civic leaders, planners and residents who attended our recent public forum on the Fourth Plan in Hartford, Conn. We had discussions on many pressing issues facing the state, including inadequate transit connections from Connecticut’s urban areas to the rest of the region and a shortage of affordable housing. But attendees also wanted to make sure that the health of their communities would be part of the plan.

While we have more research and outreach to do before we can propose solutions, our work recognizes that public health effects are embedded in the choices we make about our built environment. Some of those connections, such as having reasonable access to medical facilities, are obvious, but there are many other aspects of our built environment that play a role in the health of the region.

Community development and design affect public health. Access to amenities like grocery stores that sell fresh foods and spaces for exercise can affect the health outcomes of a neighborhood’s residents. Improving walkability and safety in a community also tends to improve residents’ health in myriad ways.

Climate change and environmental hazards affect public health. Superstorm Sandy taught us that our changing climate poses serious health concerns for the region’s residents, especially for those already living on the margins. Air pollution and other environmental hazards are a daily hazard for some residents. Future decisions on where to locate industrial facilities will affect the air residents breathe and the water they drink. And severe weather looms as a constant, hard-to-predict threat to lives and security.

Our transportation systems affect public health. Can you cross your street safely? In New York City alone, 281 people were killed in traffic accidents last year, with more than 66,000 people injured. In many neighborhoods, streets made unsafe by dangerous traffic patterns or limited access to transit take a toll on residents’ health and well-being.

Housing affects public health. Quality and location of housing all play a crucial role in public health. Housing options that crowd occupants, ignore regulatory codes or expose residents to excessive noise and pollution take a toll on the well-being of individuals and communities. Maintaining housing stability for households at risk of homelessness and addressing the housing needs of chronically homeless individuals also is an important component of public health.

What does your community need to do to improve the health and well-being of its residents? How can the Fourth Regional Plan craft a vision for a healthier New York metropolitan region? We want to hear from you. Tweet your comments and ideas to @regionalplan using the #4thplan hashtag. You also can share your comments with us our Facebook page or send us an email at [email protected].