KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When Bill Drummond surveys his Midtown neighborhood he sees numerous building blocks for improving the health of his community.
There is Manheim Park and also the spacious gymnasium and large kitchen in the vacant Bancroft school. Those facilities, he said, could be used for exercise and classes on healthy cooking.
“Our assets are already in place,” Drummond said Saturday morning.
He was one of about a dozen neighborhood residents who gathered at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 4205 Tracy Ave., to talk with representatives from the city’s public works and health departments.
They discussed ideas for how the city could help reverse troublesome trends, such as the fact that Manheim Park residents visit emergency rooms for asthma-related problems at a rate more than double the city average.
Thanks to an initiative through the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), conversations like the one Saturday could become more commonplace around the metro Kansas City.
The aim is to produce more Health Impact Assessments, such as the one Kansas City is working on for the Manheim Park neighborhood.
The assessments try to gauge the broad health effects of plans, policies and projects that sometimes seem outside the scope of public health, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
For example, an assessment helped convince San Francisco policymakers to increase the minimum wage for employees of companies that provide services for the city, according to the foundation. The assessment showed that better wages would decrease the risk of premature death among some workers, increase their education potential and reduce the risk of childbirth outside marriage.
Similar work is taking place locally and throughout Missouri and Kansas, according to the Health Impact Project, a partnership between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust.
Among the projects is one in Independence, Mo., the aim of which is to inform officials about implementation of the city’s complete-street policy. The policy dictates that staff and contractors consider the needs of pedestrians, bikers, and peoples with disabilities when designing road and street projects.
Marlene Nagel, MARC community development director, said land-use policies would be a key regional focus as part of the health assessment effort.
That could mean giving public health officials a seat at the table – alongside public works, water services and planning officials– when localities review plans from private developers.
The ultimate goal, Nagel said, was for MARC to develop model Health Impact Assessment procedures for use in municipalities around the region.
“We are very interested in the older suburbs and the growing, newer suburbs and smaller communities as well as in the large cities,” she said.
MARC expects to solicit proposals for assistance in developing that tool within the next month, she said.
To start the effort, the agency has drawn about $30,000 from two federal grants it is already administering, including one for $4.3 million from Department of Housing and Urban Development for its Creating Sustainable Places initiative.
Nagel said MARC officials also were hoping to win a $125,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to sustain the Health Impact Assessment work.
Addressing health concerns would tie in easily with the Creating Sustainable Places initiative, said Dean Katerndahl, who is helping to coordinate the initiative as MARC’s director of government innovation forums.
He said the health assessment would fit well with the “suite of tools” MARC is developing to promote smart growth.
Health impacts could be one of the “sustainability lenses” that communities could apply in planning for growth and development, he said.
“Not everything is going to meet every requirement,” he said, but at least it reminds staff: “Have you thought about this.”
As director of development for MD Management, a Mission, Kan., real estate company, Jim Harpool sits on the Sustainable Places coordinating committee.
To a certain extent, Harpool said, market forces already are dictating design of neighborhoods that are more walkable and activity oriented. That’s what some consumers want, he said.
Harpool, who has about four decades experience in real estate development, said he has seen over time more government regulations that add time and expense to construction projects.
“But you live with the system and you work with the system and move forward and it certainly is challenging,” he said. “Are we getting a better product? Yes, but the financial impact is substantial.”
The Health Forward Foundation is proud to partner with the Kansas Health Institute news service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. This News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and the Health Forward Foundation and is committed to objective coverage of health issues.