Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Public health trainer aims to change built environments

Leanne Jeffers, public health training manager for the Regional Institute for Health and Environmental Leadership at DU’s University College, says some places are built for healthy lifestyles and others aren’t. She’d like to see planners who are designing built environments — neighborhoods, apartment complexes, offices, and such — think about creating healthy communities. 

Jeffers, whose primary role is managing a leadership development program, is passionate about bridging public health and land use. In the mid 1800s planning and public health went hand-in-hand but diverged in the early 19th century, Jeffers says. Coming together again could translate into better public health.

“Over the last 50 years, we’ve built urban and suburban areas for autos,” Jeffers says. “There’s nowhere to walk and nowhere to walk to. Things are too far apart.”

Citing a rise in obesity and related health problems, Jeffers says the nation’s health is worsening. And there’s a battery of related issues — motor vehicle injuries, air and water quality, stress, mental health and social capital. Rather than approaching each separately, Jeffers says broad changes could prevent many health issues.

She received a $9,300 DU public good grant to host a workshop for public health professionals, planners and “healthy living” communities to discuss this emerging field. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Colorado physical activity and nutrition program provided matching funds.

In June, Jeffers and James van Hemert, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, hosted the Planning Active Community Environments training at DU. With a planner at each table, 72 attendees, most from the public health field, learned about planning and zoning processes and the interconnectedness of the two fields.

In an evaluation of the training, one attendee wrote, “There is a real opportunity for public health and planning professionals to work together to create better communities.”

Jeffers agrees. “Public health professionals can bring our expertise into the thinking to create healthy communities,” she says.

Katie Guthrie, a planner for the City of Longmont who took part in the training, says that while the collaborative approach isn’t happening much in Longmont, it’s gaining momentum regionally and nationally.

“My understanding of the public health field and the full collaboration is very limited,” Guthrie says. “I just have this sense that the potential is tremendous.”

Jeffers hopes to conduct a similar training for planners with public health representatives acting as facilitators.

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