Before the next chicken-processing plant is built in southern Delaware, or prior to approving 200 new homes in the next town over, some health experts say it makes sense to pause for a moment.

 

Trainer Kristin Raab is in Delaware this this week to share new ways to evaluate community projects. Raab, the climate change and health program director at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the process is called a "health impact assessment."

"So that when we build something that goes into the ground, and it is in the ground for the next 150 years, we've built it in the best way possible to promote all of the public's health," she said.

Each community decides what to measure.  It could be carbon emissions, or noise levels or bicycle traffic. Whatever the yardstick, Raab said, more deliberate decision-making could improve health.

Shorter streets and more intersections might encourage people to walk. Once outside, maybe you're catching up with neighbors. What would that do to traffic? Would there be fewer cars, less congestion and better air quality?

"It might lower stress," Raab said. "Because you're not stressed out that you are getting in a car, and these busy lanes. People are always stressed out in their cars."

Rabb gave area residents ideas for gathering the kind of local level health data they might need to do a comprehensive review.

She also urged planners to consider health outcomes for an overall area as well as subpopulations. For example, older adults, people with disabilities or children may be affected very differently by a policy or plan.

Some developers worry a health assessment will add another layer of red tape and could be used — similarly to environmental reviews -- to stall unwanted projects.

Health impact assessments new concept in U.S.

Kelly Muellman, who is a climate change and health program planner in Minnesota, said health assessments are becoming more routine in the United States.

Health impact studies are already commonplace in some European communities, and some policy experts hope they'll become mandatory before cities adopt major development plans. That idea is just beginning to take hold in the United States.

"Right now, it's voluntary, so it's a little bit easier to come to a group, not saying, 'You are required to do this' versus, 'This would be a good idea or this is just something else to consider,'" Muellman said.

She urged planners and advocates in Delaware to make "actionable and specific" health recommendations.

Telling transportation or housing developers to "increase physical activity" is open to wide interpretation, she said. Asking developers to add sidewalks to 50 percent of streets is a goal that's easier to measure.

Delaware's first health impact assessment is under way.

The nonprofit group, Delaware Greenways, and the Environment and Policy Committee of Delaware's Coalition for Healthy Eating and Active Living (DE HEAL) are tracking plans for the Fort DuPont complex near Delaware City.

On Twitter, follow @TaunyaEnglish and #placehealth to join the conversation about the power of place and the ways neighborhood shapes health.

The "Designs on Health" series was conceived as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, which is administered by The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.