Prevention and Land Use Planning

By Wiant, Chris J. | Journal of Environmental Health, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Prevention and Land Use Planning


Wiant, Chris J., Journal of Environmental Health


One of the few things we can predict come, certainty is that change will come. Success is often defined by how well we recognize the need to change and can adapt. Now, an emerging public health issue--land use planning--is calling for a change in the dominant approach of health and environmental professionals. In many areas of the United States, growth and development are among the top issues on the agenda of communities, elected officials, and policy makers. The question is how to manage growth in a manner that maintains--or enhances--the viability of a community by preserving health, environmental resources, and quality of life.

The extent to which local public health officials and, in particular, environmental health professionals participate in the land use and development process varies among jurisdictions. Frequently, the role of health officials is limited, because planners often do not recognize the value of the expertise offered by environmental health professionals. Furthermore, many environmental health professionals see the development process as politically charged and therefore an unfriendly forum for health and environmental protection issues. Finally, many predictions of risk are laced with assumptions. It is difficult for policy makers to base land use and development decisions on the instincts of health experts about the long-term risks unless the predictions are based in sound science.

What kind of information can environmental health professionals bring to the table to strengthen land use decisions? The development of new land or the redevelopment of other properties provides an opportunity to apply the concept of primary prevention to community health and environmental protection. Environmental health involvement may begin with an assessment of vulnerable areas that could be influenced by a proposed development. That analysis might consider groundwater recharge areas, surface-water sources that collect stormwater or provide a drinking water supply, air quality, natural and man-made hazards, and the location of spills, underground storage tanks, and so forth. The next step would involve discussion of alternatives to ensure protection of vulnerable areas.

Other land use issues for which environmental health expertise may be valuable include

* adequate and effective wastewater disposal;

* water quality, including consideration of well head and aquifer protection, surface water protection, and efficient use and reuse of water;

* best management practices for control of nonpoint-source pollution spread by factors such as stormwater and erosion;

* air quality, including odors, transportation planning, and source control;

* noise impact from sources such as airports, traffic, and commercial/industrial facilities;

* pollution prevention, including identification of incentives for businesses to reduce the use and disposal of toxic materials;

* assessment of hazards such as fires, floods, spills, and landslides;

* proper solid and hazardous waste disposal; and

* safe redevelopment of federal facilities and brownfields areas.

While planners and policy makers typically recognize the importance of such concerns, the issues outlined above may not always get meaningful attention in the land use decision-making process. The advocates for health and environmental protection often are not at the table early in the process challenging developers or planning departments to recognize and respond to environmental health issues. True, planning commissioners have been heard discussing their concerns about the long-term impact of development on air, land, and water resources, as well as quality of life, but they often lack the information and technical support that would confirm or assuage their fears. In such situations, local environmental health professionals could assist by engaging in the discussion. …

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