Transcript of Public Health

This page provides more information about opportunities for partnering with redevelopment in public health profiled in our 2010 podcast series, Rebuilding Healthier Neighborhoods.

I'm Robert Ogilvie, director of Planning for Healthy Places, a project of Public Health Law & Policy. In this podcast, I'm going to discuss how public health advocates can work with redevelopment agencies to create healthier communities.  I'm going to talk about some of the assets that public health brings to the relationship with redevelopment; some of the challenges that public health is likely to face when working with redevelopment; and then I'm going to talk about some of the strategies that public health departments and public health advocates can adopt to make their work with redevelopment agencies more successful.

First, the public health assets. Public health departments have access to great neighborhood-level health data, and this data can help guide redevelopment investments and decisions. Let me give you some examples. In North Richmond, the Contra Costa County Health Department used data about the extraordinarily high rates of asthma in North Richmond to convince the redevelopment agency to create new routes for diesel trucks to keep them out of residential neighborhoods. And in San Francisco, the public health department has created the Healthy Development Measurement Tool, which has been adopted not just by San Francisco city agencies, but by people all across the country and around the world to help them understand the health impact of proposed projects. These are two great local examples of public health departments using local public health data to help guide redevelopment and other land-use decision making processes.

Public health departments have the good will of the public. They're seen to be working in the public's interest because they are working in the public's interest. And that good will is something that unfortunately is a real rarity in a lot of government agencies now. Public health can bring that to the table. And the public health lens, can be a good lens for reframing what can be a very political set of issues: this land-use development process and the redevelopment process. And often public health health by its reframing of the issue can help break political logjams. Public health departments also have what people in public health like to call boots on the ground. They've got a lot of staff who work with a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional allies, including community constituents, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood coalitions. And public health departments can help redevelopment agencies do a better job of reaching out to community members and involving them in priority setting and in building support for projects. 

So for example, in San Francisco, in Bayview Hunters Point, the San Francisco Public Health Department is a member of a group called SEFA, which is the Southeast Food Access Working Group. And this is a coalition of community organizations that have a shared interest in improving food access—healthy food access—throughout the neighborhood. Now, through SEFA, the public health department staff was able to build strong relationships with corner store owners in Bayview Hunters Point and they were able to convince the redevelopment agency to commit resources to improving the nutritional quality of foods offered for sale in Super Save, which is a local store in Bayview Hunters Point. And thanks to this combined advocacy of the health department and the community organizations, the redevelopment agency now includes small stores, and trying to build up small stores, as part of its overall strategy for improving food access in Bayview Hunters Point. People in the community see that as a very valuable way of getting healthy food into the community quicker, rather than simply waiting for the multiyear development process of trying to develop a grocery store.

With that said, there are some very real challenges. Public health departments do not have a direct mandate from the state to work with redevelopment agencies. A lot of times, the redevelopment agency might greet potential public health involvement with skepticism or outright hostility. I can imagine redevelopment agency staff saying, "Who are these people, coming and telling us how to do our work?" In lots of places opportunities for partnership between public health and redevelopment can be limited by politics, by the strength or weakness of local relationships between staff in the different agencies. And this inter-agency relationship dynamic could potentially require political leadership to overcome. And oftentimes, the political leadership in the public health department has got to play a role in overcoming this. It's one thing to ask the different staff members to work together, but in some places, you're really going to depend on the leadership of the public health department reaching out to the leadership of the redevelopment agency and making the case about why that relationship is beneficial for the two organizations and for the city or county as a whole.

Another challenge is the fact that a lot of the people who work in redevelopment agencies are real estate people. They come from a real estate background and what they do and what they see their job as is making the deal—finding the best deal for the city, making sure that when they run the numbers that they're going to generate the maximum tax benefit for the investment and for the time spent. They may not understand or value what public health can do. At the same time, public health departments and their staff often lack experience with real estate and economic development because their staffs are usually not trained in that. And this makes it difficult for redevelopment and public health to even talk the same language a lot of the times. Public health departments and public health advocates are also often constrained by their funding sources, which are often focused on particular diseases or risk factors and constrain their ability to step back and spend time working on comprehensive policy strategies.

So despite these challenges, there are a couple of ways public health departments can and do partner with redevelopment agencies. One way is around data, which I've already mentioned. public health departments can use data to advocate for things that they want, things like health equity. They can use data to support redevelopment goals and they can use data to illustrate potential public health outcomes of redevelopment decisions. Public health departments collect data and they can use that data to help redevelopment agencies prioritize the projects that have the greatest potential to impact public health. That public health data can also be used to demonstrate the impact of proposed redevelopment projects, and, where appropriate, to help provide legitimacy and credibility for redevelopment goals.

Another way that public health can partner with redevelopment is to help organize and mobilize communities to participate in the redevelopment planning process. Public health departments tend to do a very good job of reaching out to communities, and tend to have a lot of links into the communities and they can assist redevelopment agencies in engaging residents in making decisions and setting priorities for the neighborhood, and they can help sustain community engagement, which is essential to the long-term success of redevelopment projects.

Another way that public health departments can work with redevelopment is to ensure that public health goals are incorporated into redevelopment plans and into the five-year updates of redevelopment plans. Once public health issues are included in redevelopment plans, redevelopment agencies become legally responsible for implementing these strategies. Another way that public health departments can work with redevelopment is to partner in the implementation of redevelopment plans. Public health departments can help raise funds from local philanthropies to implement project priorities; they can develop creative solutions to addressing specific neighborhood problems; and they can help analyze and monitor the health impacts of redevelopment decisions.

In different places, the relationship that exists between the public health departments and the redevelopment agencies will differ. The public health department staff who are looking to work with redevelopment agencies in their community will need to start by assessing what the relationship is between their two departments and adjust their strategies accordingly. If you are lucky enough to be in a city or a county where there is a positive working relationship, well then, mobilizing the data and involving yourself within the redevelopment process will take work but it should be fairly straightforward. In places where this sort of positive relationship does not exist, then it's going to be a much more difficult and potentially politically interesting process of engaging with redevelopment. Whatever the conditions in your community, engagement with redevelopment agencies can be a very important way for building healthy infrastructures in the neighborhoods that often need it the most.

For Planning for Healthy Places, I'm Robert Ogilvie. For other podcasts in this series and for more information about redevelopment and public health, visit