Raleigh Ranks Second in National Survey of Public Health and Comprehensive Planning
[This article originally appeared in The Raleigh Public Record, a now-defunct, hyperlocal, online news source, in July 2011.]
Raleigh received high marks for its planning efforts to keep air and water clean while increasing recycling, conserving electricity and reducing water consumption, but the City is on target to do even more.
Raleigh recently received national kudos for being one of only two surveyed communities, and the only city, that specifically addresses at least 50 percent of specific public health topics in its 2030 Comprehensive Plan, according to a report produced by the American Planning Association that was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Raleigh’s plan addresses 15 of 31 public health topics, which range from food and nutrition to climate change, mental health and recreation. [HREF “TOPICS” TO JPEG I’LL SEND YOU] The only plan that addressed more elements belonged to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.
The report, Comprehensive Planning for Public Health: Results of the Planning and Community Health Research Center Survey, surveyed and reported on data from 890 local governments to identify comprehensive or sustainability plans that explicitly include public health goals, identify opportunities and barriers to develop and reach these goals and to assess the current state of planning for public health by local governments.
The connections between comprehensive planning and public health are numerous. Housing, transportation and land use have tremendous effects on access to food, clean air and water, housing choice and affordability, transportation choices and physical activity. Many modern plans are increasingly bulking up the social, economic and environmental elements to address new issues such as climate change, health equity and community based food systems, among other goals.
Clean air, water, physical exercise, access to healthy foods and areas designated for physical activity are vital elements for public health. Residents not only enjoy a higher quality of life, they may have more jobs, too. Healthy cities have an edge when it comes to recruiting businesses investment, too; the potential for frequent sick days and high health insurance payouts can discourage businesses looking to hire.
“It’s always nice to be recognized,” stated Ken Bowers, deputy director of the department of city planning, “but we hope to give public health an even more prominent role in our Comprehensive Plan as we bring forth future amendments.”
One effort includes Raleigh’s plan to make community gardening easier and more accessible to city residents by allowing gardens to be sited on selected city lots and loosening restrictions so willing landlords can legally allow others to garden their land within Raleigh’s city limits. The ongoing implementation of Raleigh’s bicycle transportation plan, which includes planning elements to increase safety and availability of bicycle facilities, is another.
Raleigh has already received recognition for its sustainability efforts. On April 13, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced the city had won its 2011 Siemens Sustainable Community Award for mid-size communities.
Electric Cars, Solar Arrays, Green Building
Recent sustainability efforts to improve air quality include installing three electric car recharging stations. Electric vehicles help address climate change and improve air quality. Raleigh is one of only three US cities selected to pilot Project Get Ready, an initiative to help U.S. cities prepare for plug-in vehicles.
Two of the downtown recharging stations are located at 285 W. Hargett St. and the third is at the corner of McDowell and Cabarrus streets, near the Convention Center. The city plans to use state and federal funds to install 30 more stations by December.
To help educate city residents, on Wednesday, July 13, Raleigh, Advanced Energy and Progress Energy present Plugging In: Progress & Opportunities for Electric Vehicles from 8am-12 noon at Marbles Museum. Admission is free, but registration by July 8th is required to attend.
Electric car enthusiasts may also want to attend a screening of Revenge of the Electric Car, a documentary that follows four entrepreneurs’ efforts to market the electric car globally. For $10 admission, visitors can tour the Exposition Hall to check out plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, charging systems, and more. After the movie, a Q&A panel discussion will be held. The event is part of the national Plug-In 2011 conference which will take place in Raleigh this year, from July 18 through 21.
Since 2009, enough energy to meet the needs of 25 North Carolina homes has been quietly generated by a solar array atop the city’s E.M. Johnson Water Treatment Plant’s clearwater building. Carolina Solar Energy leased the rooftop and installed a 250-kilowatt solar array that generates and estimated 325,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 264 metric tons each year.
Another solar array at the Brentwood Road Operations Center began operating in January. It’s expected to produce 28.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, which is sold to Progress Energy. The Center also uses solar energy to power some of its LED lighting.
A third 500-kilowatt array is planned for the Raleigh Convention Center rooftop. FLS Energy/PowerWorks will develop and operate the facility, which is expected to produce enough electricity each year to serve 100 N.C. homes. The array will be built without using city funds.
To stimulate private green construction, Raleigh’s Office of Sustainability will continue the Green Building Training Series. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, construction professionals who live, work or do business within the City of Raleigh can attend classes and earn certifications for a $25.00 refundable fee per class. All classes are available on a first come-first serve basis.
Barriers to Progress
The report found the top two barriers to addressing public health in comprehensive plans for the majority of local governments in the sample were the lack of local and state government funding.
Bowers stated, “The timely implementation of any capital program can always benefit from more funding. We are fortunate that our Council has funded such important implementation steps as the rewrite of the development code.”
Although Raleigh did not receive credit for the ‘physical activity’ component of the survey, Bowers notes, “I would think that one basic condition that ought to be met for healthy development is that you should be able to leave your front door and go for a walk without putting your safety in jeopardy. Too many developments in Raleigh fail this basic test”
Raleigh’s new development code should lead to more pedestrian-friendly development patterns, but Bowers admits this is a “difficult sell in Raleigh” partly because local groups have organized to improve transit and bicycling, but not walking. However, Raleigh’s City Council recently created a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission to provide recommendations and guidance on both issues.
The national report found one-third of its respondents felt “public health related goals, objectives and policies in the adopted comprehensive plan have had positive impacts or made positive improvements to the community.” Bowers counts Raleigh among that number, citing the ongoing implementation of the City’s Bicycle Master Plan and amendments to the zoning code that address pedestrian facilities in new developments, along with other changes anticipated in the rewrite of the City’s development code.
Public health covers a lot of topics, but Raleigh received points for its clean air, water and physical activity initiatives. By allowing more farmers markets to operate the city promote healthy eating and by making community gardens more accessible, access to local foods will be enhanced.
The report also found most survey respondents either did not use public health assessment or data collection tools or did not know if they had been used to help create their comprehensive plans. According to Bowers, Raleigh did meet with county and local healthcare providers to develop its Plan, but he believes “more can be done to incorporate the insights and objectives of the public health community going forward.” Bowers added the City would look into incorporating some public health data into the Raleigh Databook.
Despite recent lean years, Raleigh’s planning efforts have addressed many public health issues and more are on the way. The city plans to use hybrid electric buses in downtown’s business district and future CAT bus purchases will probably be B-20 biodiesel compatible. Raleigh’s participation with Cree, a manufacture of LEDs among other products in its “LED City” initiative, allows the city to save considerably in energy costs over time, which is detailed in Cree’s case study.
Rainwater harvesting and solar-powered water heating efforts at Raleigh fire stations are underway, and the city has asked all developers working on affordable housing projects for the city to build to Energy Star standards. It has also increased recycling at city-sponsored events and in its facilities. Landscaping with drought tolerant plants are another approach the City is using to reduce its own water consumption, while tiered rates for Raleigh water customers are motivating conservation at the residential level.
One way the city has been able to continue funding some sustainability projects, despite the economic downturn is by using Raleigh’s Supplemental Sustainability Fund. Originally seeded with $1.5 million in 2007, the fund was designed to be self-replenishing and is intended to move conventionally designed projects into sustainable projects. Paula Thomas, Raleigh’s sustainability initiatives manager, used a prospective swimming pool project to illustrate how the process works. If the city planned to design a swimming pool, but wanted to add stormwater collection or solar heaters, they would apply to for an SSF grant to fund the sustainable elements. After evaluation by a three person panel, dollars may be awarded, but with the requirement that any savings must be documented and that all monies saved (or generated, as would be the case with solar arrays) must go back into the fund.
Another successful approach to augmenting scarce funds is by making alliances with private industry. Cree, Carolina Solar Energy and Progress Energy have allied with the city to pursue projects that enhance the city’s air quality and reduce electrical costs without using municipal funds. Another city partnership, with the non-profit Architecture for Humanity-Raleigh, which is leading the city’s bike rack design competition and soliciting funds for rack fabrication, will make Raleigh’s downtown area more inviting for bicyclists, create favorable conditions for physical activity and reduce travel emissions.
Until economic conditions improve, Raleigh’s ability to re-seed its own fund or enter into creative partnerships increases its chances of reaching planning and sustainability goals. The results could benefit the environment, city residents and recruiters alike.