Creating Healthy Places to Improve Public Health

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Nearly 15 years ago, Dr. Catherine Ross and a group of like-minded individuals came together to address the rising obesity epidemic and rates of chronic disease in the United States.

She believed that “to find solutions, we need all perspectives in the room.”

To bring these perspectives together, Ross worked with individuals from Georgia Tech, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Emory University, Georgia State University, local government leaders and health departments to create the Healthy Places Research Group (HPRG) in 2003. 

They set out to address questions such as: How is public health influenced by the built environment? What role do policy makers, planners, architects, engineers and designers play in addressing these challenges?

Ross, director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD), and colleagues sought to answer these and other questions through both applied research and by building multi-disciplinary partnerships.

The group is guided by the concept that "Healthy Places" can refer to buildings, neighborhoods, and even entire metropolitan areas. HPRG works to explore how to develop, design, and build places that promote good health, support community values, and restore vitality to communities.

The overall goal of HPRG is to provide a forum to share research and build relationships, keeping dialogue open for opportunities to work together. Participants in HPRG have formed teams which have submitted successful research proposals.

The early supporters of HPRG were alarmed by the increasing rates of overweight and obesity in the United States, and felt that all individuals who could change this trajectory should strive to do so. 

These initial discussions were motivated by the increasing body of evidence that planners, architects, engineers, policymakers, designers, and others who are not in the traditional fields of public health or medicine can still positively influence public health.

One early steering committee member was Andrew Dannenberg, an M.D. with a master’s in public health, who is currently an affiliate professor in Environment and Occupational Health Sciences as well as Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington.

He states that, “The built environment influences public health in many ways - for example through rates of physical activity, air pollution, injuries, mental health, social capital and environmental justice. Multiple disciplines come together to create the built environment. … Design and policy interventions can positively affect obesity and chronic disease rates. Public health can't fix these problems alone.”

He still attends meetings if they occur when he is in Atlanta

HPRG meets monthly during the academic year at the CQGRD at Georgia Tech.

At each meeting, speakers present their work on a common theme which explores how places can be built to promote good health. Some examples of previous topics have included:

  • Creating Green Infrastructure
  • The Relationship Between Health and Equity
  • How Healthy and Sustainable Places Drive Economic Development
  • Creating Opportunities for Physical Activity: Developing the PATH400 Trail
  • Healthy Food Access: Working with the Community

The contributions of the HPRG program were recognized in 2004 and 2005 by the  local pedestrian advocacy group Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety (PEDs), for work that encourages active lifestyles and other healthy choices, such as walking. 

The goal of PEDS is “to make communities in Georgia safe, inviting and accessible to everyone who walks.”

Sally Flocks, the Executive Director and Founder of PEDs, describes what she sees as the value of the group:

“HPRG provides an opportunity for people in a variety of fields who are interested in connecting the built environment and public health, to come together to share their work through presentations and discussion.”

Flocks has been a longtime supporter of HPRG and continues to attend HPRG meetings.

Participation is open to anyone interested in the characteristics and advancement of healthy places within the built environment. HPRG meetings typically include participants from the School of City and Regional Planning, CQGRD, Emory, the Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State University, the CDC, local, state and federal employees, and individuals from the private sector. It is also open to the public.

The first meeting of the school year in September was canceled in the wake of Hurricane Irma and will be rescheduled.

The October meeting will be from 7:30 – 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 24, at CQGRD, 760 Spring St., Suite 213, Atlanta, Ga. 30308.


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    Malrey Head
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