One of the more interesting facets of land use planning is its ability to impact our lives in a multitude of ways. We can intuitively understand and grasp the concepts of keeping certain types of land use apart – the landfill and the residential neighborhood, for example. These are facially obvious ideas, even if they can still generate controversy from time to time. What is not so obvious, however, is how and where land use planning can impact us in more subtle ways, especially with regard to public health and safety.

An increased focus in land use planning is on encouraging and employing planning standards that are “safe by design.” There are several connotations of “safe” at play. Some studies, such as one done by the Prevention Institute, find high correlations between violence and land use planning, such as higher proportions of violence where high retail alcohol density is prevalent. An article in the American Journal of Public Health investigated the profound link between land use planning and overall public health, as did a report by the National Association of Local Boards of Health. Both point to design and planning choices based on a hierarchy of transportation modes as changing the role of physical activity in our lives, and not necessarily in a good way. When schools, shopping centers and other community resources are at a remove from neighborhoods, communities increasingly rely on motor vehicle transport, which both decreases physical activity (students walking or biking to school, for example) and increases the risk of accidents, air pollution and pedestrian injuries. This is largely the result of the “loops and lollipops” of neighborhoods designed to have quiet cul-de-sacs and minimal through traffic on arterial roadways. When cities and neighborhoods are laid out in more of a grid, physical non-motorized activity increases, especially when schools, retail centers and neighborhoods are truly integrated, and this can have an impact on public health problems such as childhood obesity.

“Safe by design” is not without its own challenges, either. For example, neighborhood design may take into account an open grid plan with multiple points of egress and ingress that not only provides increased physical activity but more options for emergency vehicles to enter or residents to leave quickly in case of an accident. On the other hand, traditionally it is believed that crime prevention is more effective in neighborhoods with limited exits, creating bottlenecks for police to close off. Land use planning takes these competing considerations into account, working to find the best methods to develop strong, safe, healthy neighborhoods while focusing on minimizing negative outcomes, and the “safe by design” mentality is taking hold in more and more discussions of planning, zoning and development.