How Transforming Public Spaces Can Improve Health & Tackle Climate Change

By path2positive

The effects (and causes) of climate change affect everyone the world over. But exactly how they will affect our health, and to what extent, depends on where we live. Geography is one factor – natural and human-made health risks, and the way climate amplifies them, are different in Tucson than they are in Toledo. Social inequality is another – it’s well known that class and race disproportionately influence which health issues people face, and their likely outcomes.

But according to the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, “a person’s zip code can be a more reliable determinant of health than their genetic code.” Indeed, the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute recently found socioeconomic, behavioral, and environmental factors combined determine about 80 percent of person’s length and quality of life, and these tend to be rooted in our location. 

That’s one reason that in 2017, Climate for Health’s blog and social media content will focus increasingly on spotlighting leaders, issues, and solutions at the local level. Consider this blog the official kickoff!

Creating Tomorrow’s Cities

According to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050, two-thirds of the global population will live in cities – and these cities will need to be economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. That was the idea driving the New Urban Agenda adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) this past October. 

Among many other important points, the Agenda notes urban residents’ vulnerability to climate change and mentions that:

“Given cities’ demographic trends and their central role in the global economy in the mitigation and adaptation efforts related to climate change and in the use of resources and ecosystems, the way they are planned, financed, developed, built, governed, and managed has a direct impact on sustainability and resilience well beyond the urban boundaries.”

Thus, the Agenda includes an international, voluntary commitment to “promote the creation and maintenance of…quality public spaces to improve the resilience of cities to disasters and climate change.” 

These trends suggest that collaborative community planning– what the Project for Public Spaces calls “placemaking” – has the potential to protect and improve the physical and mental safety and health of a city’s diverse residents. The health care field can play an important role here. But where to begin?


For too long we have had doctors talking only to doctors, and urban planners, architects, and builders talking only to themselves….Public health in particular must be interdisciplinary, for no professional category owns public health or is legitimately excused from it.

— Dr. Richard Jackson, pediatrician, former chair of UCLA’s Environmental Health Sciences Department, former Environmental Health Director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Climate for Health Leadership Circle member.


The Case for Healthy Places

The Project for Public Spaces’ The Case for Healthy Places offers a useful primer in creating and supporting healthy placemaking initiatives. Funded in part by Climate for Health partner Kaiser Permanente, it outlines the benefits of placemaking in five areas: Social Support & Interaction; Play & Active Recreation; Green & Natural Environments; Healthy Food; and Walking & Biking. Each section provides an overview of the topic and a review of research findings, then provides specific ways to take action, illustrated with a successful case study.

The longest chapter is devoted to how hospitals and other health care institutions can become “anchors” of a place – not just via the medical services and jobs they provide, but also through the ways they participate with other neighborhood institutions to improve their community’s streets, parks, squares, and buildings.

This section of the report covers eight ways to get involved both inside and outside the walls of one’s facilities to create health-promoting spaces – and even deliver health care directly:

1. Engage stakeholders to identify needs, assets, ideas and potential partners.

Case study: Stanford (CA) Heathy Neighborhood Discovery crowdsourcing tool—Stanford Health and one partner

2. Conduct or support research efforts to identify evidence-based approaches to plan, design and program public space.

Case Study: O.A.S.I.S. on Ballou redevelopment of a former vacant lot in a "forgotten" block, Boston, MA –Massachusetts Department of Health and four partners

3. Build capacity with local residents and community groups to help them shape public space.

Case study: Agents of Change Training in Our Neighborhoods (ACTION) community organizing project, Sonoma County, CA—St. Joseph Health

4. Dedicate funding to a public space or public space improvement.

Case study: Canalside waterfront recreational hub, Buffalo, NY—Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York and one partner

5. Sponsor programming and activities in a public space.

Case study: HealthParks neighborhood wellness hubs, Detroit, MI – Healthy Detroit and one partner

6. Reprogram health facility space for physical activity and healthy food choices.

Case study: Kaiser Permanente farmers markets, nationwide –Kaiser Permanente

7. Provide volunteers to help foster great public spaces.

Case study: Urban Gardens, Houston, TX—United Healthcare and two partners

8. Track results and impacts of placemaking projects.

Case study: Gardens for Growing Healthy Communities, Denver, CO –Colorado School of Public Health and four partners

The Climate Change Link

Beyond their value in promoting economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable cities, these efforts can contribute to addressing climate change in another way. The more closely embedded health care institutions and practices are in the communities they serve, the more new opportunities there are to “talk climate.” That includes more chances to listen so we can better respond to people’s needs, as Dr. Jackson wrote in his blog, “How Extreme Weather, Health, and Communities Connect.”

ecoAmerica’s Let’s Talk Climate communications guides and webinars are ideal tools to bring to the healthy placemaking process: Check out Let’s Talk Climate: Messages to Motivate Americans; Let’s Talk Health and Climate: Communication Guide for Health Professionals, and Let’s Talk Climate: Messages to Motivate U.S. Latinos.


Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at




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