by Ben Winig, senior staff attorney and program director at ChangeLab Solutions
Fresno, California, has long been the economic hub of California’s fertile Central Valley. Known more for its chicken and vegetable processing plants than for its downtown skyline, Fresno is now embarking on a new phase of its life: building in. Fresno’s Mayor and others have helped launch a bold new plan to revitalize the city’s downtown. The initiative relies on infill development – the development of vacant or underutilized parcels within urban centers and rural hubs – to create a walkable, livable city center.
Increasingly, communities across the country are turning to infill as a constructive and comprehensive land use and planning strategy. By refocusing development on a community’s urban core, infill draws people and business back into the heart of the community.
When done well, infill can improve transportation systems, protect the environment, and revitalize communities. But infill has the unique potential to improve public health outcomes, too. With strategic planning and foresight, planners and developers can use infill to actually help make communities healthier.
There are four core issues that can, and should, be addressed in any infill plan or project in order to capture potential health benefits:
- Transportation, including active transportation and access to transit;
- Air quality;
- Access to daily needs and services; and
- Quality affordable housing.
By addressing each of these issues, planners and developers can use infill to both accommodate a growing population and improve public health.
Infill development is a preferred urban growth strategy primarily because it reduces the amount and distance that people travel in their cars. It can also help create “Complete Streets” and provide better access to public transit, thereby encouraging walking, biking, and the use of buses and trains.
Reducing how far and how often people need to drive also reduces vehicle emissions (not to mention household transportation costs), so less driving means less air pollution; this, in turn, helps everyone breathe easier. Active transportation has proven health benefits, too. It is an important strategy for combating obesity and its associated health risks.
Infill projects that promote active transportation and public transit use can help improve regional air quality, but new infill developments can also result in residents locating near existing sources of pollution, exposing them to poor air quality.
To address these negative health risks, public agencies can pursue policies that require site-specific analyses of pollution patterns and impose context-sensitive mitigation measures. Such measures might include adjusting building orientation and design or adding filtration systems to protect sensitive populations. Several communities across the country already limit or prohibit certain types of development (e.g., schools, hospitals) near freeways and other sources of pollution.
Access to Daily Needs and Services
One of the potential health benefits of infill development is that it can increase access to health-promoting services and daily needs. Increasing the mix and density of uses within walking distance of homes and workplaces are both important strategies for creating “complete neighborhoods.” Dense, mixed-use neighborhoods should include development that allows people to meet their everyday needs; buy healthy food; be physically active; and access jobs, education, and health care.
Quality Affordable Housing
Many researchers consider quality housing one of the fundamental building blocks for individual and community health. Lack of access to affordable housing means less household income for things that maintain and support health, like health care, food, and transportation, so it’s critical that communities plan for infill in a way that strategically incorporates quality, affordable housing.
Infill projects and mixed-use developments that revitalize older downtowns can improve housing quality, attract new businesses and residents, and increase or stabilize property values. But without proper safeguards, such projects may effectively price out existing residents who can no longer afford rents in a revitalized neighborhood. With high-density, mixed-use projects, innovative housing designs, and regulations that protect long-time residents, infill development can actually stabilize property values and attract new business and residents without forcing others out.
Healthy infill is a win-win. With adequate preparation, planners and developers can easily consider public health problems, outcomes, and solutions in infill project planning; this way, infill can revitalize a city’s urban core while improving public health outcomes. The policies and plans that we develop now will shape our cities and set the foundations for our quality of life long into the future.
Ben Winig is a senior staff attorney and program director working at the intersection of the built environment and health. Ben regularly advises elected officials, public agency staff, community-based organizations, and public health advocates on a variety of active living and healthy planning strategies.