Healthy Environments for All: the Best Strategy for National Security?

The gap between rich and poor in the US has widened markedly during the last 20 years. Middle class working families are rapidly slipping into poverty, and the poor increasingly see problems of health (over 30% obesity rates, with concomitant diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, etc.) and social health (unemployment, violence, and crime) devastating their neighborhood. These problems cluster in the poorest neighborhoods, diminishing opportunities for individuals to lift themselves out of the vicious cycle.

Aspects of the physical environment accelerated these problems. Absence of healthy food, unwalkable streets, poor public transit, neglected main streets, lack of safe streets, squares and parks, and absence of accessible employment opportunities and satisfactory schools demonstrate a long-standing negligence on the part of planners and elected officials to maintaining fundamental conditions to assure health, well-being, and minimal economic and educational standards.

A number of significant reports have recently been published proposing policies and strategies for addressing this problem. The Center for American Progress published a PolicyLink report titled Prosperity 2050. Is Equity the Superior Growth Model?  In this, Sarah Treuhaft and David Madland analyze the trend towards increasing economic disparity, the changing American demographics, and the economic consequences of these changes. They call for a new policy framework to guide our economic growth. They conclude that inequality is bad for sustained economic growth, and that growth can be promoted through equity. They show how this can be achieved by reframing the issue, crafting a policy platform for equitable growth, disseminating innovations that advance equity, cultivating equity leadership, and prioritizing, measuring and tracking equity goals.

Their report is convincing and includes recommendations relating to the way the built environment should be planned and reorganized. The report concludes: “our future prosperity as a nation will depend on the people and places that have been left behind. To truly do this we must begin to embed strategies that integrate the poor into the economy at every turn.” Our poor are the largest undeveloped resource in the country.

A National Strategic Narrative,  a report by Military Advisors to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published by the Woodrow Wilson Center, came to a similar conclusion. Our national security today, they emphasize, depends not merely on protecting the country from outside aggression; even more important is to sustain our enduring national interests – prosperity and security. “This begins at home with quality health care and education, with a vital economy and low rates of unemployment, with thriving urban centers and carefully planned rural communities, with low crime, and a sense of common purpose underwritten by personal responsibility… Only by developing internal strength through smart growth at home and smart power abroad, can we muster the credible influence needed to remain a world leader.”

For the sustainability of our nation’s security and prosperity, the report calls for us to cultivate innovation, flexibility and resilience. The report emphasizes that we need to “embrace and respect diversity and encourage the exchange of ideas,” Our greatest renewable resource is America’s young people. We must “prioritize investments in education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth… By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth.”

They suggest the creation of a National Prosperity and Security Act to integrate policies, taxation, expenditures and regulations to coincide with the goals of sustainability, and to “support the innovation and entrepreneurialism of America that are essential to sustain our qualitative growth as a people and a nation.”

Both reports, from the perspectives of economic security and military security, emphasize the importance of investing in our greatest undeveloped resources – our large poor populations, and our youth – to make our nation strong. Improving the built environment in which these population groups live is an essential aspect of this investment.

At the 49th IMCL Conference on Planning Healthy Communities for All, we shall examine the relationship between improving the built environment, and improving health and well-being, particularly for the more vulnerable among us, and those in poor neighborhoods. If we invest in poor neighborhoods where the most serious physical and social health problems are focused, we believe that the greatest returns on environmental investments will result.