Uncovering JAPA

Planners as Partners in Building Healthy Communities

The planning discipline has a long, conflicted history with low-income and racial minority communities. Today, planners continue to address this history through increasing opportunities to involve communities in planning processes.

What does it look like for planners to not simply involve communities but ensure they have agency and lead?

In “Can We Be Partners: A Case Study of Community Action and Local Food Systems Planning in Los Angeles?” (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 85, No. 3) authors David Sloane, Breanna Morrison Hawkins, Jacqueline Illum, Alison Spindler, and LaVonna B. Lewis explore this question through a proposal: “an expanded conception of authentic participation that includes the role of community institutions in initiating legitimate collaborative planning processes.”

The authors question the need to centralize authority within planning departments, which then legitimize the voices of communities. Instead, they conjecture that, through partnerships, planners may succeed in both encouraging higher forms of citizen participation and ensuring this participation has meaningful impact.

To illustrate this point, the authors explore the role of health advocacy group Community Health Councils, Inc. (CHC) and South Los Angeles residents in prioritizing healthy food access in two community plans.

Figure 1. CHC model for social change. Note: Redrawn by Jackie Castillo. Source: © Community Health Councils. All Rights Reserved. Image redrawn by Jackie Castillo with permission. Reproduced from “Can We Be Partners:>A Case Study of Community Action and Local Food Systems Planning in Los Angeles?" JAPA Vol. 85, No. 3.

Figure 1. CHC model for social change. Note: Redrawn by Jackie Castillo. Source: © Community Health Councils. All Rights Reserved. Image redrawn by Jackie Castillo with permission. Reproduced from “Can We Be Partners:>A Case Study of Community Action and Local Food Systems Planning in Los Angeles?" JAPA Vol. 85, No. 3.

Throughout its work, Community Health Councils positioned itself not only as an advocate for healthy food access but also for the residents of the historically Black South Los Angeles neighborhood. CHC assisted residents in understanding the power they hold shaping their communities both now and in the future.

What makes the work of CHC different from others — and allows it to fulfill Sherry Arnstein’s vision of community participation — is its ability to sustain engagement throughout the course of the plans’ processes and implementation. And the results of this commitment are apparent.

The coauthors compared 35 Los Angeles community plans and found significant disparity in the mention of food and health-related terminology in CHC versus non-CHC plans.

Food terms were mentioned 14.33 more times in CHC influenced plans; for health terms to figure was 33.76 times. Community Health Council and resident advocacy created change beyond South Los Angeles. Ninety-one percent of the wording in their health restaurant program recommendation was featured in the new Health Element within the Los Angeles General Plan Framework, which guides development goals and future land use planning.

This change is a true testament to the power of meaningful community participation.

As I engaged with this article, I found myself considering the complexity of its title: Can we be partners? At first glance, it poses the ostensible question of whether or not planners can work together with community groups and residents to develop spaces which better prioritize the needs of communities.

However, I think it also may pose a larger question to the planning discipline. Can we as planners partner with public health officials and others to improve not only the built environment but the health and well-being of all who inhabit it?

Top image: Farmers markets, like this one in Washington, D.C., can provide healthy food in communities where it may be hard to come by for seniors and others. Photo by Flickr user Bread for the World (CC BY-ND 2.0).


About the Author
Kyle Miller is a joint Master in Urban Planning and Master of Public Health candidate at Harvard University.

August 29, 2019

By Kyle Miller