Healthy Places - Planning

Planning determines the way land is used, protected, and designed.  Planning is done by states, regions, counties, cities and towns at all scales, including urban, suburban and rural.  Planning considers the positive and negative impacts of land use changes on people, infrastructure, the environment and budgets.  Planning can ensure that places grow in ways that preserve quality of life, promote environmental sustainability, build community and encourage a healthy lifestyle.  Examples include zoning and land use, environmental planning, transportation planning ad, protected and designed.   

photo of writing notes on a big paper map

What kind of things do planners consider?

Planners must consider many things in their work. They help make decisions about how to build a strong community and economy by creating places that connect people to jobs, services and recreation.  A city or county planning department may work with local communities to create appropriate land-use policies, determine transportation priorities, make recommendations about zoning decisions or provide design services for new development.  Planning departments in Tennessee consider a wide variety of topics affecting communities such as:

  • appropriate land use and zoning (what can be built and where),
  • community plans (to guide the community’s growth over time),
  • transportation (how people get around and connect to jobs and services),
  • complete streets (streets that allow for multiple types of users, including pedestrians, cyclists, cars and public transit),
  • historic preservation (what significant buildings or places should be preserved),
  • neighborhoods and subdivisions (making rules to guide how they are built and change over time),
  • resilience (safety and protection against natural disasters), and
  • sustainable development (development is good for people and the environment in the long-term).

Planning is more common in Tennessee’s urban areas, though planning is important in all areas.  For example, rural areas may use planning to protect farmland from development, suburban areas may plan for transportation options to ensure they can reach job centers in a nearby city, and urban areas may use planning as a way to create a vibrant and walkable downtown district.

What is smart growth?

Smart Growth America promotes “smart growth” as housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools supporting local economies and protecting the environment.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that smart growth covers a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger and more socially diverse.  Smart growth development can help create more economic opportunities, build great places where people want to live and visit, preserve the qualities people love about their communities and protect environmental resources. 

How can planning support public health?

Place is an important determinant of health, and health officials and planners are finding they have a lot in common.  The places where people live influence their health through:

  • opportunities for physical activity and recreation,
  • transportation options and connectivity to jobs and services,
  • quality of schools,
  • safety and crime,
  • air and water quality, and
  • housing affordability.

Plans can include goals and objectives that promote health.  For example, when plans include choices for active transportation people can be physically active as part of their daily routine.  The American Planning Association suggests including these six broad-health related topics when planning:

  • active living,
  • emergency preparedness,
  • environmental exposures,
  • food and nutrition,
  • health and human services, plus
  • social cohesion and mental health.

Why are zoning policies important to health?

Zoning is a land use planning tool.  Zoning has been used in urban, suburban and rural settings.  Zoning determines what can go where, which can have a major impact on health.  Zoning policy can influence neighborhood factors that lead to health outcomes such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.  Zoning can be used to restrict or prohibit types of land uses in certain areas.  For example, zoning can prohibit a landfill or concentrated animal feeding operation from being located in an area that could reduce residential property values or quality of life.  Zoning can also encourage certain land uses.  For example, mixed use zoning can increase density connecting people and places leading to more active transportation and physical activity.  Zoning policies can encourage or require healthier options such as sidewalks, bike lanes, affordable housing or green spaces.  Effective zoning policies can make healthy choices easier, decrease health inequities and even increase property values.

Why is public input important for planning?

Communities are the experts on what they want, and this knowledge is important for planning.  Most communities want beautification, safety, jobs and transportation choices, but each community has different ideas about how to achieve this.  Planners often seek community input during public meetings or hearings.  Plans that begin with grassroots movements can also be accepted by the communities the plans are intended to benefit.

Can planning save money?

Planning can ensure that growth and infrastructure investments make economic sense.  Although planning requires time and money, it pays off through cost savings and economic prosperity.  Planning is important for avoiding financial mistakes.  Often construction projects are budgeted years in advance as it may take years to raise the funds needed to build new or fix old infrastructure.  If a poor decision is made without planning, communities will likely have to live with the negative consequences for many years. 

Well-planned neighborhoods are often more attractive and considered to be safer, reducing costs from cleanup or crime.  Communities with invested neighborhoods, churches, shops, schools and governments tend to have more active volunteers and donated financial support.

Smart growth communities tend to have stronger neighborhoods with stronger local businesses.  When communities have multiple choices for getting around, transportation costs tend to be lower.  In places where it is easy to get around and local businesses are doing well, more jobs tend to be available at better wages which reinforces the local economy. 

What planning organizations serve my area?

The city or town, county, and region you live in probably have multiple agencies or officials interested in planning.  Many have a planning committee or a planning department.  Federal transportation legislation requires all urbanized areas of 50,000 or greater population to maintain a continuing, comprehensive and cooperative transportation planning process.  Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Transportation Planning Organizations (TPOs) administer federal funding and provide technical expertise for transportation projects.  Tennessee's 11 MPOs and TPOs (PDF) serve Bristol, Chattanooga, Clarksville, Cleveland, Jackson, Johnson City, Kingsport, Knoxville, Lakeway, Memphis and Nashville.  In less populated areas of Tennessee, Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs) are responsible for transportation planning.  Tennessee’s 12 RPOs (PDF) are Center Hill, Dale Hollow, East Tennessee North, East Tennessee South, First Tennessee, Middle Tennessee RPO, West Tennessee RPO, Northwest Tennessee, South Central East, South Central West, Southeast Tennessee and Southwest Tennessee.  Tennessee has 9 Development Districts (PDF) of municipal and county governments working together on planning and development. In addition to government planning organizations, cities sometimes have non-profit planning groups or organizations that create plans and work with communities on planning efforts, such as the Nashville Civic Design Center.

Government partners

Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT)
Office of Community Transportation (OCT)

Tennessee Development Districts Association

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Smart Growth

Additional Resources

Tennessee Chapter of the American Planning Association (TAPA)

Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC)

Urban Land Institute (ULI)

Smart Growth America (SGA)

Local Government Commission (LGC)
Leaders for Livable Communities

Form Based Code

ChangeLab Solutions
Webinar: Healthy Equity - Built Environment

Helpful publications

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
This is Smart Growth (PDF)

American Planning Association (APA)
Healthy Planning (PDF)