Philadelphia plans new weapon in fight against obesity

    The city’s plan to fight obesity centers on the new zoning code. Read about the details and see how neighborhoods compare in obesity rates by zip code.

    A new comprehensive plan for Philadelphia will be presented to the city planning commission Tuesday. The plan, called Philadelphia 2035, is the vision statement meant to guide development in the city for the next 25 years.

    The ideas laid out in the plan will have a big impact on the city’s new zoning code and its application. But it looks at more than where to put roads and erect buildings. It’s also trying to shrink the city’s collective waistline.

    Planning for health

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    City planning first emerged as a profession during the Industrial Revolution. In the last few decades of the 19th century, immigrants and people from the countryside streamed into cities and crammed into tenement houses, drawn by the promise of factory jobs.

    “You would end up with hundreds of people living in a block,” said Genie Birch, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research and a city planning professor at University of Pennsylvania.

    Cities did not regulate development much, save for restrictions meant to prevent fire. Consequently, the cities were a mess.

    “Their bathrooms would be outhouses, the sewers would be open sewers, garbage would not be collected,” Birch said. “It was a pretty vile situation.”

    Diseases such as cholera and typhoid spread quickly in these newly swollen cities. Workers had to develop ways to prevent overcrowding and get sewage out of the city and clean water into it. With the need for disease prevention and sanitation, the new professions of city planning and public health were born. The collaboration between the two groups that marked their early efforts, however, was short-lived.

    “After we solved the problems of water and crowding and so forth, the public health people went off in their direction, city planners got involved in other kinds of things, and they lost this direct articulation of public health and city planning,” Birch said.

    Health workers, planners collaborate again

    In the past five years or so, Birch said they have come back together to wrestle with America’s 21st century epidemic: obesity. As a growing body of research links the built-up environment to weight and the chronic diseases that go with it, city planners and public health workers are starting to collaborate more. Philadelphia city planner Clint Randall, who works under a federal grant administered by the public health department, helped to write the health-related goals in the city’s plan.

    “Where you put that recreational trail or where you put that new park or how you deploy bicycle infrastructure, those are going to have impacts on physical activity rates and people’s behaviors,” Randall said. “Those behaviors have an impact on overweight and obesity and a variety of chronic diseases.”

    Randall has been looking at which factors in a city affect health, mapping things such as access to healthy food and parks, then writing improvements into the comprehensive plan. For example, Randall said studies have shown that if you live near a supermarket you are more likely to eat fresh produce and less likely to be overweight. So one of the goals in the new plan is to make sure every Philadelphian can walk to a place where they can buy fresh produce. Sounds easy enough, but there are plenty of places in the city where the market won’t support a full grocery store, so Randall and others have to get creative.

    “OK so if we know that 80 percent of people in this neighborhood use the nearby transit station, what about putting a healthy food source there?” Randall said.

    Randall said the city is talking with SEPTA about putting farmers markets in train stations. Other goals include making sure every city resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a public park, and developing  pedestrian friendly neighborhoods with shops, services and transit stations clustered together.

    Many of these measures may seem fairly obvious. But Kim Hodgson, with the American Planning Association in Washington, D.C., said it is a big step for city planners to start figuring out how to make these over-arching goals into practical plans.

    “Philadelphia along with a handful of other cities across the United States [is] really being pioneers in this work, in terms of collaboration in terms of addressing some these issues that haven’t necessarily explicitly been addressed from a planning perspective,” Hodgson said.

    Goals written into the comprehensive plan are already affecting proposed zoning laws, and how the laws will be applied. Proposed codes would allow for urban agriculture and community gardens in most residential and commercial districts, and for raising bees or livestock in industrial areas. And new rules will limit the number of parking spaces in some districts to encourage people to take public transit and walk.

    The new comprehensive plan is in draft form, and is open to public comment online at Once finalized, 18 district plans will be developed to translate the goals into specific on-the-ground blueprints. Those will dictate exactly where those new train lines, trails and farmers markets will be.

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