Local leaders plan for healthy, resilient communities

Date: Thursday, June 24, 2021

A vendor setting up vegetables for sale at a farmers market.Metro-area cities have used the comprehensive planning process to identify issues that are important to their communities. Local comprehensive plans reveal community plans to address these important issues, and regional planners are taking a deeper dive into several issues identified, with the help of external research and subject matter partner organizations.

Starting with public health, staff partnered with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Public Health Law Center to analyze what plans say.

Of the 163 plans received to date, Metropolitan Council staff and partners did a deep dive into 49 local plans, identifying 11 health-related topic areas to explore in depth, including:

  • Mixed-use development
  • Healthy food access
  • Affordable housing
  • Transportation
  • Transit-oriented development
  • Green space preservation
  • Recreation opportunities
  • Greenhouse gas reductions
  • Extreme heat
  • At-risk populations in climate change
  • Intense rain

“You might be asking yourself what health has to do with the Met Council’s role and responsibilities,” said Eric Wojchik, Met Council planning analyst. “From a policy perspective, we are increasingly aware of and engaged in the intersection of many different topic areas.

“Health is a through-line in the (Met) Council policy objectives of stewardship, prosperity, equity, livability, sustainability,” said Wojchik. “For a lot of communities, we see that health is an avenue toward achieving these other outcomes.”

Amplifying public health issues

At a June 16 Committee of the Whole meeting, the partner agencies detailed their findings on what comprehensive plans say about providing access to healthy foods and recreational opportunities, two of the 11 indicators analyzed.

“We had several objectives in conducting research into these specific areas,” said Community Development Director Lisa Barajas. “We want to elevate and amplify key public health issues that communities face, showcase and promote best practices and strategies, and third, look for opportunities to provide technical assistance.”

Barajas said the study sample includes communities from diverse geographies and locations in the metro area, as well as those that included a chapter on “resilience” in their local plan and/or received health improvement support from the state Health Department.

Access to healthy foods

“As we dove into the plans we asked, ‘Does the community plan for healthy food access that promotes local food production and healthy foods at retail stores?’” said Matthew Gabb, research assistant, Public Health Law Center. “Food access is not a requirement of comp plans. However, it is an avenue toward promoting regional priorities of equity, reducing disparities, improving livability, and encouraging sustainable food growth and consumption.”

“We found a host of local approaches to this question,” said Gabb. “In Columbia Heights, local officials are focusing on how development patterns can decrease the distance between households and health food retail options. Minneapolis is looking at financial and technical assistance to existing corner and convenience stores to help them expand and upgrade to provide healthy food options.

“Maplewood is studying gaps in its sidewalk and trail network. They want to make sure new development near food sources have avenues for people to safely get to these destinations regardless of mode,” he said.

“Belle Plaine, a more rural community, is encouraging backyard gardens, community gardens on public property, and expanding the range of allowable urban and residential farming activities. Corcoran is another community eyeing development patterns and ways to accommodate growth without encroaching on farmland,” said Gabb.

Access to recreation opportunities

“On this issue, we asked, ‘Does the community plan for access to public recreation opportunities, parks, trails, and culturally appropriate programming?’” said Anna Crouch, research assistant, Public Health Law Center. “We found that nearly all the local plans we looked at had a strong focus on recreation. Again, not as a plan requirement, but as an avenue toward goals of livability and equity, creating opportunities for all residents.

“We found communities relying on different funding streams to support parks, primarily through land dedication and fees. Some are relying on strategies for long-term system maintenance through programs like ‘Adopt a Park,’” said Crouch.

“Eden Prairie, for example, is engaging civic organizations, social clubs, and faith-based organizations to adopt parks or otherwise volunteer to maintain park features. Other communities are looking at ways to improve connections and respond to diverse communities in a diversifying population.”

Crouch said equity is a recurring theme in plans — to dismantle barriers, comply with ADA requirements, and create more inclusive opportunities.

“The Dakota County Collaborative is identifying corridors that link residents to community amenities, but also to other local and regional trails that connect to parks and natural features.

“Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center are conducting citizen engagement through interviews and surveys to listen to residents wants and needs in their local parks and park programs.”

“In Plymouth, local officials are considering snow removal on trails to make trail infrastructure accessible year-round,” said Crouch.

Only the beginning

Staff from the Met Council and partner agencies will continue to brief Council members on their findings as they assess comprehensive plans for the identified topic areas or indicators. A video of the June 16 Committee of the Whole meeting is available on the Met Council’s website.

Earlier this year, staff provided the first look at information gleaned in a composite look at local comprehensive plans. As of June 16, five plans remain outstanding, 139 have been authorized to go into effect, others are at some stage of the review process.

Posted In: Communities

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