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Healthy Communities Guidelines Added to Countywide Planning Policies

City of Seattle Seal

The King County Growth Management Planning Council (GMPC) has adopted the set of Countywide Planning Policies (CPPs) that will guide King County and its 39 cities in their Comprehensive Plan updates.  One new element:  a set of guidelines developed by the Board of Health that emphasize healthy eating and active living (HEAL).

The “Healthy Communities Guidelines” were adopted unanimously and with little debate by the GMPC, thanks to careful and effective staff work, as well as strong advocacy by the members of the Board of Health (BOH), which had previously adopted a resolution advocating for them.  This is in contrast to the situation a few years ago, when a similar set of proposals was tabled because of opposition by some cities, who saw them as too intrusive and prescriptive.

There are several reasons why this changed.  First, these guidelines were carefully worded to avoid language that suggested mandates.  Second, over the last few years, awareness of the importance of healthy eating and active living has increased, and the evidence is clear that city land use and transportation policies can have a major impact on these important concerns.  Third, the leadership of the Board of Health was both united and fully engaged this year, while during the previous attempt we were surprised by the emergence of the opposition.  This is a good lesson in how to make public policy change happen – it takes careful and systematic work, and it takes time to get people used to the idea of doing something different.

King County and its cities will all engage in a major 20-year update of Comprehensive Plans over the next couple of years, as mandated by the State of Washington under the Growth Management Act (GMA).  Comprehensive Plans set the stage for more specific land use, transportation, and other regulations and actions – under the GMA, policies adopted by local jurisdictions must be congruent with the jurisdiction’s Comprehensive Plan.  In turn, these Comprehensive Plans must follow the CPPs.  Both Planning Policies and Comprehensive Plans generally point in directions rather than including specific mandates – in Seattle, we are fond of using phrases like ‘strive to’ rather than ‘will’.  Despite this, the Comprehensive Plans do set limits and directions that define what actions will be taken.

The “Healthy Communities Guidelines” are informed by the leading and actual causes of preventable death and illness in King County, and focus on nine areas:  physical activity, nutrition, harmful environmental exposure, transportation-related injury, violence-related injury, tobacco use, alcohol use, mental health and well-being, and health services access.  In each of these areas, the Board of Health recommended a guidelines and specific elements that should be considered in Comprehensive Plans.

The guidelines adopted by the Board of Health were included in the CPP”s in the relevant chapters.  For example, the section on Development Patterns included the following BOH suggested language:

“DP-6 Plan for development patterns that promote public health by providing all residents with opportunities for safe and convenient daily physical activity, social connectivity, and protection from exposure to harmful substances and environments.

DP‐7 Plan for development patterns that promote safe and healthy routes to and from public schools.

DP‐8 Increase access to healthy food in communities throughout the Urban Growth Area by encouraging the location of healthy food purveyors, such as grocery stores and farmers markets, and community food gardens in proximity to residential uses and transit facilities.“

Adoption of these kinds of provisions by the GMPC lays out a clear direction towards more healthy eating and active living, which can then be translated by each jurisdiction into their Comprehensive Plan and specific implementation steps.  King County is breaking new ground by including these kinds of strategies in the GMA implementation policies – it is a great step forward in the long path towards a healthier and more sustainable society.

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