Planning and Community Health Center
Planning and Designing the Physically Active Community
In the last decade, the paradigm of smart growth has prompted many communities to improve the physical design of downtowns and neighborhoods. The precepts of smart growth include building more compact, walkable communities; allowing more mixing of land uses; providing transportation options other than automobiles, including public transit, and bicycle, and pedestrian facilities; and balancing jobs and housing to reduce commute times, improve air quality, and reduce reliance on cars. When communities make and implement plans to grow smarter, the result can be the creation of places that allow for more walking and physical activity than is typical in many post-war suburban and urban environments. That said, while there been more opportunities for physical activity created as a byproduct of smart growth principles, communities have not developed any systematic way to incorporate those opportunities in the normal course of planning. Many communities have yet to take steps to improve their physical design in any context, much less one that addresses physical activity.
Planning Active Communities
This report looks at how planning processes, development regulations, and community participation can be used to ensure that development patterns facilitate everyday physical activity. Includes information about safe routes to school programs and accessible schools, along with case studies.
About This Project
APA and its members are uniquely situated at the center of the diverse array of interests that must be brought together to address the issue effectively. These interests include smart growth generally, and specifically urban design, neighborhood planning, housing, safe and efficient transportation, parks and conservation, economic development, town center development and revitalization, and environmental protection. Further, in the last several decades, many states, including New Jersey, Maryland, and Oregon, have taken an active role in promoting smart growth in communities and neighborhoods. The approach APA will bring to these program activities will be to identify and focus on the strategic points of intervention — where the most critical community planning decisions are being made that affect future physical activity.
Survey Results Summary
In spring 2003, with the assistance of Readex Research, Inc., in Stillwater, Minnesota, APA conducted a random survey of 10,000 public agency APA planners about how planning can create opportunities for citizens in their jurisdictions to become more physically active. Surveys were sent via an email message, which contained a link to a survey hosted by Readex Research, Inc. Responses were tabulated until there were 1,000 usable responses.
Survey results point to growing recognition among elected and appointed officials about using policy to increase opportunities for physical activity for residents. Further, many officials recognize that community planning and design have a role in creating these opportunities.
We also asked respondents what actions their jurisdictions had taken to implement smart growth objectives, such as increasing development densities, expanding transportation choices, and promoting mixed use. Many respondents indicated that multiple actions were being taken to support smart growth. Many of these actions are wholly supportive of the objective of creating communities where citizens can be more physically active. Despite that support, the survey revealed numerous barriers that must be cleared before "physical activity" is a regular element in plans and planning processes.
- Sixty-four percent of the respondents indicated the physical activity of residents is either an emerging or important issue for elected and appointed officials in their jurisdiction.
- Sixty-four percent indicated the relationship of community planning and design to physical activity is an important issue for elected and appointed officials.
- Forty percent said physical activity "is not considered a planning issue," and that fact was the primary barrier to giving greater consideration to the effect on opportunities for physical activity in projects and plans.
Other findings include:
- Sixty-five percent of the respondents indicated their agency has collaborated with the parks and recreation department on physical activity issues; only 4 percent indicated they had collaborated with the public health department.
- Local governments have been very active in implementing smart growth code reforms supporting walkability and active communities. Since 1993, 81 percent have enacted a mixed-use ordinance, 72 percent require or recommend that bicycle and pedestrian trials be incorporated into new developments, 68 percent require open space to be preserved in new developments, and 62 percent have revised ordinances or plans to increase development densities to support public transit.
- Regarding specific facilities jurisdictions may have installed to support bicycling and walking, 33 percent indicated they require sidewalks in new developments, and 53 percent reported that sidewalks are required in some new developments. Also scoring high was a requirement for five-foot-wide sidewalks, which planners generally regard as the minimum width to allow two people to walk abreast comfortably. Thirty-four percent of survey respondent jurisdictions require such sidewalks, and an additional 41 percent require them in some but not all areas.
- Respondents reported their jurisdictions have taken other measures to promote physical activity since 1998, including the following:
- Seventy-three percent had inventoried recreational facilities.
- Sixty-two percent had increased spending on bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
- Sixty percent have conducted visioning processes that addressed, at least to some extent, the attitudes of residents about bicycling and walking.
- A full commitment to planning and designing a physically active community calls for inclusion of health and activity policies, goals, and objectives in the local comprehensive plan and other functional plans. Sixty-four percent of respondents said the jurisdiction's parks and recreation plan addressed physical activity, as did 61 percent of the comprehensive plans, 47 percent of bicycle and pedestrian plans, and 35 percent of transportation plans. Further analysis will be necessary to determine whether these plans actually contain policies specifically encouraging physical activity as opposed to an inference by survey respondents that the inclusion of bicycle and pedestrian elements and quality-of-life goals in plans are the equivalent of specific policies.
The results we got were unexpected and suggest a problem with the wording of the survey question. In short, many more respondents than expected said several of their jurisdiction's plans contain explicit policies to increase opportunities for physical activity. As shown, 84 percent indicated the parks and recreation plan contains such explicit policies, 81 percent indicated that the comprehensive plan contains them, and 47 percent said the bicycle and pedestrian plan contains them.
We expect that further analysis of the actual plans may show that, in the view of planners, policies, goals, and objectives related to walkability, alternate transportation modes, and quality-of-life enhancement — all of which are commonly found in the plans listed in the survey — are inherently supportive of physical activity goals. While it is significant that planners perceive that physical activity and health of residents are being addressed in these plans, expressly stating such goals would require a stronger civic commitment to health on the part of the local jurisdiction and would result in programming and resources directed at creating active communities. And, of course, broadening plans and the plan-making process to include health issues and advocating for greater focus on the issue could help leverage substantial and previously untapped support for all the smart growth reforms jurisdictions have undertaken in recent years.
Resources for Planning and Physical Activity
Literature review and Resource LIST
The Planning and Designing the Physically Active Community Resource List contains book, article, and government document citations. The list is part of a continuous process and may be considered a literature review as well as a resource list for the project.
Texts were chosen for the resource list based on several criteria, including relevance to the topics of planning and the promotion of physical activity, timeliness, the ability to convey concepts accurately and concisely.
The resource list is arranged under the following topics, Popular Literature, material that is of interest but is not specifically about planning and physical activity, including articles that appeared in the popular press; Planning Literature, information written by/for planners; Health Literature, information written by/for medical and public health practitioners; Plans and Guidelines, outstanding plans and technical assistance documents from states and communities; and Law and Legislation, ordinances and other legal documents of interest.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its puropse is to encourage changes to the built environment that will promote physical activity as a means of improving the health of Americans.