by Kim Krisberg

When most of us pass by a new high-rise or drive down a new road, we rarely think: Did the builders and planners consider my health? However, a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers evidence that certain types of land use and transportation decisions can indeed limit the human health and environmental impacts of development.

Released in mid-June, the publication is a revised and updated version of an EPA report initially published in 2001. Agency officials said the report was particularly timely as the nation’s built environments are quickly changing — in fact, the report states that “researchers have estimated that as much as two-thirds of the development that will exist in 40 to 45 years does not exist today, meaning that decisions we make about how and where that development occurs could significantly affect our health and the health of the environment.” The report goes on to say:

Patterns of development, transportation infrastructure, and building location and design — the built environment — directly affect the natural environment. Development takes the place of natural ecosystems and fragments habitat. It also influences decisions people make about how to get around and determines how much people must travel to meet daily needs. These mobility and travel decisions have indirect effects on human health and the natural environment by affecting air and water pollution levels, the global climate, levels of physical activity and community engagement, and the number and severity of vehicle crashes.

Just a couple of the consequences of how we build and design our communities listed in the EPA publication: At least 850,000 acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds and 50,000 miles of rivers and streams are estimated to be contaminated by stormwater runoff. And even though advancements in technology have reduced individual car emissions (emissions that reduce air quality and complicate respiratory disease), the substantial increase in car travel — often the only practical way for people to travel to and from daily destinations — has offset any potential gains from emission-reducing technology.

The report also notes that while data is incomplete as to the relationship between the built environment and obesity and physical activity levels, a majority of studies have found that community design does play a role in people’s decisions to exercise. In fact, even the CDC’s Guide to Community Preventive Services recommends design and land-use policies that encourage and support physical activity. And a 2012 Alliance for Biking & Walking report found that $11.80 in benefits can be gained for every $1 invested in bicycling and walking infrastructure.

In a news release announcing the new report, EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe said: “This report will be useful for communities across the country looking to make smart development decisions. Whether it’s housing, transportation, or environmental issues, this report can help communities protect public health and the environment by avoiding harmful development strategies.” The report notes that strategic changes in how we design and plan our communities can make a difference.

For example, doubling residential density can reduce reliance on vehicles, which in turn reduces air pollution and increases the likelihood that people choose physically active travel means; making transportation decisions that include safe biking and walking options will also encourage physical activity; and green building materials and infrastructure can improve indoor air quality and limit negative impacts on water quality.

Of course, public health professionals have long known about and focused on the effects of our environments on health. However, there is a growing movement to integrate health considerations into transportation and community design as well as to strengthen the linkages between public health workers and transportation and urban planners. To learn more about those topics, visit APHA, Transportation for America or the Smart Growth Network.

To download a copy of EPA’s new report, “Our Built and Natural Environments: A Technical Review of the Interactions Between Land Use, Transportation, and Environmental Quality,” click here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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