Strengthening California’s Healthy Communities Movement

Strengthening California’s Healthy Communities Movement: APA California Planners4Health Initiative

Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP
APA California Planners4Health Initiative Task Force Member

About six years ago in 2011, I started my role as the first planner embedded at the Riverside County Department of Public Health (now known as the Riverside University Health System-Public Health).  Aside from learning new public health vocabulary and the relationship between land use planning and chronic disease prevention, I had the opportunity to discover on my own what planners have done to improve public health.   

Much to my surprise at that time, Internet searches produced limited web results on healthy communities planning from recognizable planning sources like the American Planning Association California Chapter (APA-California).  The most common links pointed to healthy cities research and publications from public health organizations like the World Health Organization, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. I also discovered that the California Strategic Growth Council’s work on Health in All Policies was in its initial dissemination phase and that the American Planning Association’s Healthy Planning Report was being developed.  That same year, I also joined the California Planning Roundtable (CPR) where we formed a Healthy Communities Work Group to address the need for healthy communities planning resources.  Some of the initial ideas we identified included developing capacity building tools for planners and securing funding opportunities to help them understand how to integrate public health expertise, data and approaches into their daily work.

In contrast to when I started, a tremendous wealth of information, opportunities for collaboration, funding sources, healthy communities champions, initiatives, policies and resources—including a healthy communities definition and the social determinants of health paper published by CPR—now exist.  Most importantly, the new APA California’s Planners4Health Initiative (APA-CA P4HI) represents one of the best opportunities for planners across the state for scaling up the movement.

As stated in the project’s website, the APA-CA P4HI is an endeavor to increase local capacity for creating stronger, healthier communities. It focuses on promoting greater coordination between planners and public health professionals at the state level.

In partnership with CPR, APA California received a $70,000 grant to help build local capacity for integrating planning and public health. APA-CA P4HI is part of APA’s Plan4Health three-year, $9 million program to help communities combat determinants of chronic disease – lack of physical activity and lack of access to nutritious foods. Funding for the initiative is provided through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Through APA-CA P4HI, APA California is using the grant funding to broadly share knowledge and resources so planners and public health professionals can help their communities more easily support and implement healthy living choices. The Chapter is working to bring together key stakeholders, leverage existing healthy community initiatives and efforts underway, and share planning and public health information.

Under the leadership of the APA-CA P4HI Task Force and Project Manager Linda Khamoushian, various portions of the initiative’s plan are near completion.  They include the development of the project’s website, organizing two regional convenings in Sacramento County and Riverside County and drafting a long-term strategic plan for APA California’s Board consideration. It will be presented during the upcoming APA California annual State Conference in Sacramento.

Last week, on August 30 and 31, 2017, the Planning for Health Convening for Southern California took place in the city of Riverside, California.  The event, in my opinion, establishes an important milestone in the healthy communities movement in our state on several levels.  It is reflection of a national, multi-professional impetus to never abandon America’s ideals of solidarity and service for those in greatest need and despair.

The gathering also represents a good example of how far the planning and public health professions have come together and continue to forge alliances to improve community health.  It was an event co-organized by the California Conference of Local Health Officials- California Chronic Disease Prevention Leadership Project and the APA-CA P4HI.  

The organizing committee strategically developed the event around four main themes:

  • Engaging communities to develop and implement a shared vision for healthy neighborhoods
  • Convening cross-sector collaborative partnerships to integrate healthy community principles into policies and community design
  • Data for action: Tools for developing healthy and equitable communities
  • Investing in change: Creative approaches to funding healthy community design

In addition to an impressive lineup of speakers, renowned USC’s Scholar Dr. Manuel Pastor, who is a national expert on social justice and the economics of inequity, delivered a poignant keynote address centered on current and projected changes in demographics and what they mean for planners, health advocates and elected officials.  One of his memorable remarks alluded to the idea that “a sense of solidarity can help prevent catastrophes.”

The event also provided for prime networking opportunities for planners to continue to connect with public health professionals and to trigger more collaborative endeavors related to programs, policies and approaches to improve community health at the local level.

 The next steps for APA-CA P4HI include:

  • Present the draft Strategic Plan to the APA California Board of Directors at the annual conference at the end of September
  • Continue to encourage the eight APA California Sections to adopt their own Planners4Health program
  • Connect APA-CA P4HI with the APA/APHA Joint Call to Action and the proposed National Healthy Communities Platform

I firmly believe that APA-CA P4HI can be one of the best investments APA California has provided for its members to tackle the imminent social, environmental and economic challenges ahead of us.  Only through collaboration we can prevail.


This article was first published in the San Diego Planning Journal on September 7, 2017.