Plan4Health Success Story: Partnering for Healthy Iowa Communities

Plan4Health connects communities across the country, funding work at the intersection of planning and public health. Anchored by American Planning Association (APA) chapters and American Public Health Association (APHA) affiliates, Plan4Health supports creative partnerships to build sustainable, cross-sector coalitions.


APA's Iowa Chapter was thankful to be able to continue the work started with our Plan4Health project by receiving a Planners4Health grant. The first work of shaping a task force created an opportunity that enriched every element of our project.

The Planning Healthy Iowa Communities Task Force helped shape and refine our scope of work, and in our first meetings they outlined what they hoped to accomplish with the grant. The responses were heartfelt and represented a challenge for the group:

1. Promote a common understanding of the connection between planning and health through awareness, information, and education.

2. Connect a diverse range of organizations, people, and communities from rural to urban to create a culture of healthy community collaboration.

3. Create a strategic direction that helps guide people and communities to positively impact someone’s life.

Planning Healthy Iowa Communities Task Force

These individuals represented a variety of experience and expertise in our work plan areas of physical activity, nutrition, natural environment, and built environment. They represented several organizations and different geographic areas of our state.

The Task Force took on an aggressive assessment process.

The first steps involved creating an inventory of organizations and collaborations that were, in some way, involved in community planning and/or health as it related to our four areas of focus: physical activity, nutrition, natural environment, and built environment.

The list ended up including 78 organizations and collaborations working at a regional or statewide level in Iowa. These organizations were then contacted and asked to respond to a few questions:

  • What successes would you be willing to share (e.g., improved health outcomes, policy change, sustained partnerships, other)?
  • What challenges or obstacles have you encountered?
  • Who has been key to your efforts (individuals or partners)?
  • What else would you like to share with the Planning Healthy Iowa Communities Task Force?

The results would lead us to key components of our final grant product a strategic plan recommendation for the APA Iowa Chapter leadership. Those actions expand and support connections, build resources, enhance advocacy, and promote broad participation.

An additional component of the assessment was collecting information that would enrich the work in those actionable areas. The Task Force developed a survey document to be distributed to the membership of APA Iowa Chapter, Iowa Public Health Association, and Iowa Environmental Health Association — as well as the organizations and collaboration memberships identified and other community members that we could reach out to.

This survey allowed respondents to provide open-ended answers to help understand healthy community needs across the state. The questions included:

  • Please share what could be done in your region/community to improve physical activity/nutrition/natural environment/built environment.
  • Of those suggested actions to improve physical activity/nutrition/natural environment/built environment, which would you prioritize as those likely to have the most impact for the greatest number of people?
  • For your top 3 choices, what “strengths” exist today that could advance that activity?
  • What challenges or roadblocks prevent these ideas from happening?
  • What opportunities or ideas could you share that would help move the efforts forward?

These responses enriched our direction, providing insights into our work in building resources and collaborations that lift communities' work, help sustain it, and create culture-changing outcomes that improve the health of communities and community members.

A joint board meeting between APA's Iowa Chapter and the Iowa Public Health Association. Photo courtesy Planning Healthy Iowa Communities.

Finally, the assessment involved hosting focus group sessions in six communities across Iowa. The meetings of community members, planners, and public health professionals happened in Atlantic (pop. 7,112), Cherokee (5,253), Mason City (pop. 28,079), Des Moines metro (pop. 634,725), Postville (pop. 2,227), and the Coralville/Iowa City area (pop. 161,170).

The task force provided a brief presentation regarding the Planning Healthy Iowa Communities effort, the connections between planning and public health, and statistics surrounding the need to improve public health and healthy activity.

Following the presentation, a facilitated discussion explored a series of questions focused on physical activity, nutrition, built environment, and natural environment:

  • What would your healthy community look like?
  • What would you need and how would you plan for your vision?
  • Who should be at the table for the discussion?
  • How would you implement the ideas?
  • What are the obstacles to reaching your healthy community vision?

These meetings had multiple outcomes. We were able to introduce Planning Healthy Iowa Communities across the state and understand how our future role could be shaped to assist in the best way possible for these, and other, communities. There were also many connections made with people and organizations that had not met or worked with one another — yet lived within the same general area of the state.

In addition, we were able to provide reports of the meetings back to the attendees to continue to use to enhance their relationships and their work in those communities. The input from these individuals confirmed and enhanced — "ground-truthed" — what we were hearing from the surveys.

The results of the assessment provided a vast amount of information that informed the development of the APA Iowa Chapter Strategic Plan Healthy Community Element. It will continue to shape the work defined by that plan in the future. In addition, the results will be shared with a number of our new partner organizations to assist in there work and encourage collaborations that enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of all of our work.

Circling back to the original goals of the task force, we found that the assessment phase confirmed and support the needs and directions we hoped to address with the work.

Top image: The revitalized Millwork District in Dubuque, Iowa, brings people together. APA photo.


About the Author
John Peterson, AICP, PE, is the founder and principal of Peterson Planning Strategies, a community planning and design firm.

August 9, 2018

By John Peterson, AICP