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Designing, Planning, and Building Healthy Communities

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Merriam

The health of a community can be measured in all sorts of ways. Public health officials often look at the incidence of disease, but, what about counting the percent of people who live within ½ mile walk of a park entrance?

That might seem more public works than public health — but it’s a number that we should consider, says Dee Merriam. Ms. Merriam is a community planner with the Healthy Community Design Initiative (HCDI) in the Division of Emergency and Environmental Health Services at the National Center for Environmental Health.

“The built environment is a term for the human-made landscape that we all live and work in,” Merriam explains. “It includes parks, sidewalks, and a lot more – from buildings to boulevards, canopy trees to parking lots. A healthy community is one that enables people to make healthy choices as part of their day-to-day tasks. Our work at HCDI creates tools that help communities make health-promoting changes to their built environment.”

Ms. Merriam spent more than 20 years managing park system planning with DeKalb County, Georgia. During this time, she observed how people use parks and worked with communities to develop parks that met users’ needs. She also worked with academic researchers who conducted park studies in the county. She noticed a key feature that seemed linked to successful parks—the presence of pedestrian friendly streets along park edges. She also found that developers were willing to create streets adjacent to parks when encouraged to do so early in their design process. This insight led her to obtain a second master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

When CDC created a community planner position in its Healthy Community Design Initiative in 2008, Ms. Merriam jumped at the chance to influence healthy community design decisions on a national scale. During her 7+ years with the program, Merriam has become one of the nation’s leading experts on how parks and park access influence public health.

Partnerships and Products

“The connection between the built environment and public health is often overlooked,” Merriam says. Changes to the built environment can be a crucial step in making healthy choices easy. For example, public health officials can spend a lot of time and money educating people about the important health benefits of physical activity. But living on a busy road with no sidewalks or bike lanes can make walking or biking unpleasant and dangerous.”

Merriam works with national organizations to develop tools and resources that ensure public health considerations are included in land use decisions.  She recently worked with the American Planning Association to create fact sheets and webinars about creating safe routes to parks, leveraging green infrastructure, and guidelines for development reviews. The materials are for a broad audience that includes planners, public health professionals, public works departments, community leaders, and public officials.   Her work with the National Park Service produced Parks, Trails and Health Workbook, a guide for helping planners, parks and recreation professionals, and health practitioners include public health considerations in the development of a park or trail.

Improving Your Community

During her off-duty hours, Merriam provides volunteer input into the redevelopment of her own community of Avondale Estates, Georgia. She is working with her neighbors to create a downtown that features walkable and bikeable connected streets, and a village green for community events.

Merriam urges everyone to get involved in their own communities. “Anyone can start the process. HCDI’s Healthy Places website and Healthy Community Design Checklist  can help you speak to anyone about the benefits of healthy community design.”

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