Does the quality of housing and living conditions affect health? The short answer is yes. Evidence indicates that a person's environment has a direct relationship to their long-term health. In the field of geo-medicine, experts say where you live and work is as critical to understanding health impacts as family health history.
When American psychologist Abraham Maslow designed his famous Hierarchy of Needs, he emphasized shelter as a basic physiological need along with food, water, and sleep. Without shelter people feel unmotivated, unsafe, and without a sense of belonging.
In Maryland, staff at the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) devote their time to ensuring shelter for residents. They are responsible for establishing housing interventions to revitalize and redevelop communities, and for promoting access to quality affordable housing opportunities in safe, livable neighborhoods. Above all, this team is charged with improving the quality of life for all Baltimore City residents.
To further their mission, DHCD staff create smart maps and analyze community data in the context of location using geographic information system (GIS) technology. Their work is elevating the often-forgotten relationship between housing and health. Using GIS, they study housing policies and identify areas where intervention would help improve health outcomes for residents.
"We're able to have more information at our fingertips that starts to provide us with insight into what may or may not be happening within a physical structure of the home, what some residents might be facing, and what assistance they need," said Alice Kennedy, Acting Commissioner, DHCD, Baltimore City.
Beyond Strategic Planning to Effective Policy Generation
The DHCD team used GIS to develop CoDeMap, an application that hosts data about housing, property, and community development at various levels including city, neighborhood, blocks, and parcels. Data sets hosted by the application include lots identified for demolition, major redevelopment areas, vacant building notices, property types, and foreclosures. Recent enhancements to CoDeMap are revealing even more of a connection between housing and health.
"CoDeMap is a tool that allows our agency to not just make place-based decisions, but people-based decisions," Kennedy said.
CoDeMap enables the team to view property and housing information including vacant buildings and lots, owner-occupied, and publicly owned buildings.
DHCD recently updated the CoDeMap user interface to make 15 propriety administrative datasets public and accessible, and to incorporate demographic and socioeconomic datasets such as American Community Survey (ACS) data. By adding demographic data to the city's property and housing information, Kennedy and her team gain new insight. For example, by visualizing where houses are with roofing issues, they can understand whether a building violation would be a burden on the household budget and thereby add stress to the residents' well-being. This type of insight helps DHCD staff understand which neighborhoods or blocks to focus on for assistance programs that support home repairs or forgivable roof repair loans.
"When you start to think about what insight GIS has given us, it has us thinking differently in terms of how we're approaching life for our residents. It's not just about the physical structure of that property or what shows up as a dot on a map."
—Alice Kennedy, Acting Commissioner, DHCD, Baltimore City
A Broader Look at Health Impacts
Kennedy and the team at DHCD understand how much the location, quality, and stability of housing matters to their residents' health. Using GIS as the foundational tool, they are asking themselves new questions by mapping quality of life issues such as temperature and urban heat islands, cool roofs and roofs with higher solar reflectiveness across the city. With this understanding, the team can focus on assistance programs and incentives to increase the use of temperature control rooftops thus lowering energy costs for residents. This measure also lowers the risk of asthma symptoms which are often aggravated by higher temperatures.
"My vision is for CoDeMap to be used even further to analyze health impacts and the intersection of health and housing," Kennedy said.
CoDeMap layer options include Baltimore's housing market typology to assist in strategically matching available public resources to neighborhood housing market conditions.
In many organizations, staff separate the discussions of health and housing. Often, they tackle the topics as standalone and unrelated issues to the detriment of the communities they serve. By approaching issues through their geographic connection, civic leaders gain greater insights and make better decisions about the actions they can take today for positive impacts into the future. This holistic view, made possible by GIS maps and analysis, reveals the crucial interconnectivity of issues such as health and housing, and helps leaders solve problems in new ways.
As a place-based intervention approach, Baltimore City's CoDeMap is a step in this direction. Others will undoubtedly be able to learn from Baltimore's experience, replicate their best practices, and move towards a more effective approach to improving communities.
Expand Your Skills
Interested in learning more about GIS or the impact of the built environment on health? Check out these resources below:
- Develop or build your GIS skills through this step-by-step learning plan created in partnership with APA and Esri. The learning plan makes GIS training more approachable to all planners.
- Explore how changing the built environment can improve health conditions. Find examples of plans, regulations, and policy guidance in the Built Environment and Health KnowledgeBase collection.
- Integrate Health Impact Assessments (HIA) into plans and policies. Get guidance on conducting HIA and see how to go from consideration to implementation.
- Discover how communities can use zoning and other development regulations to promote healthy living environments and healthy housing.
Top photo: View of Baltimore's GIS-based CoDeMap application.
About the Author
Keith Cooke is the Global Industry Manager for Planning & Community Development at Esri.