Health & Equity in General Plans: California’s Giant Step

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Tina Yuen – ChangeLab Solutions | This past fall, an unassuming California agency quietly took a big step forward for health, equity, and sustainability. The Office of Planning and Research (OPR) issued its new guidelines for general plans, the documents created by California cities and counties to guide their future development. The 2017 General Plan Guidelines represent the first time OPR has included specific recommendations for how general plans can address community health, equitable development, and public engagement.

Thanks to the new guidelines, communities across the state working to integrate health and equity concerns into their general plans will have a free, publicly available resource from a trusted source to guide that work. The guidelines provide best practices, data sources, model language, and case studies focused on community health, equity, climate change and resilience, and community engagement. The guidelines will undoubtedly help many jurisdictions zero in on the most appropriate strategies for integrating these concerns into their general plan updates.

California law requires every city and county to periodically update its general plan, sometimes referred to as its blueprint for the future. As a public agency with a statewide view, OPR has a unique role in supporting and guiding general plan updates. The guidelines serve as an information clearinghouse for local jurisdictions, to help make sure their plans not only pass legal muster but also incorporate best practices and policy tools that can help them achieve their goals.

General plans in California have to include certain major sections (called elements), like housing, transportation, and, as of 2016, environmental justice. Recently, some jurisdictions have also begun including elements that directly address health and equity. More jurisdictions around the state are likely to take up this trend as planning practice more broadly integrates these concerns.

OPR deserves much credit for including new and expanded health and equity sections in the general plan guidelines. The new recommendations in the guidelines also reflect the hard work of many health and equity advocacy organizations around the state, including ChangeLab Solutions and its partners.

One key partner in this work was the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), whose executive director Sarah de Guia praised the new guidelines as “a monumental first step by a state agency to provide leadership and guidance on equity and community engagement.” CPEHN advocates for public policies and resources to address the health needs of communities of color around the state, and de Guia expects that the new guidelines will “provide important strategies and best practices for local jurisdictions as they plan for growth and development” that takes into account California’s changing demographics.

ChangeLab Solutions, CPEHN, and many other partners worked together to construct a detailed set of comments and responses to OPR’s draft guidelines. These comments called for, among other changes, the addition of more and better case studies, clearer definitions, and more inclusive language, as well as a stronger emphasis on the links between health, equity, and community engagement.

For example, ChangeLab Solutions and CPEHN suggested that the guidelines include a definition of health disparities as a key term for planners. More broadly, the two organizations recommended that the guidelines be amended to better reflect the perspectives and needs of California’s communities of color. Over two-thirds of the changes suggested by ChangeLab Solutions and its partners were fully or partially incorporated into the final guidelines.

Publication of the new general plan guidelines is a momentous step for healthy, equitable planning in California, but it is hardly the last one. ChangeLab Solutions will assist with the rollout of the new guidelines, helping jurisdictions as they undertake general plan updates, as part of their continuing work in healthy and equitable planning. (See, for example, ChangeLab Solutions’ toolkit on creating and implementing healthy general plans.)

Healthy and equitable planning happens in other states, too, of course. More and more communities around the country are incorporating health and equity into their general or comprehensive plans, often with help from ChangeLab Solutions and other partners. We hope the new OPR guidelines will inspire other states to follow suit by providing the same kind of well-crafted, forward-looking guidance to their own local jurisdictions.

Tina Yuen

Tina Yuen is a senior planner at ChangeLab Solutions, where she works at the intersection of health, planning, and the built environment.


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