Thursday, September 20, 2018

Katy Macek

Usefulness of Health Impact Assessment ultimately depends on city

  • dr-Cannery-3a-073116-3

    The Cannery District along Oxford Avenue in Eau Claire on July 28, 2016. Staff Photo by Dan Reiland

    Dan Reiland

Eau Claire public health and city officials announced the completion of a major study and the first Health Impact Assessment to be completed in Eau Claire Monday night at the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre. 

This study was done on the redevelopment in the city’s Cannery District located northwest of downtown, and it looks at how physical, mental and family health among residents who live and work in the area would be affected by this redevelopment.

Members of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, Planning Commission, Eau Claire Healthy Communities, Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope and Mayo Clinic Health System spent 2½ years researching, doing surveys, collecting data and going door-to-door interviewing neighbors about their perceived safety, neighborhood friendliness, access to transportation and recreation and housing affordability in the neighborhood. 

From all of that, Audrey Boerner, who presented the results Monday, said they were able to make 34 recommendations in the HIA on how the city can redevelop the neighborhood while keeping the best interests in mind for the residents’ health.They looked at safety and crime, housing, social cohesion and access to parks/trails and transportation as focus areas. They found the area is primarily a low-to-moderate income area with a higher minority population and housing is about 60 percent rental units. 

“We learned a lot about how health is connected in intricate ways,” Boerner said. “Mental health and housing affordability for example — we were surprised how much research is out there to support connections we thought were there but didn’t have data to back it up.” 

HIAs are becoming more popular in Wisconsin. This one is specific to redevelopment, but groups can use an HIA to develop a plan for any project or issue, large or small. They don’t usually take so long to complete, she added, pointing out the teams had to be trained how to do it first.

It was a big task to undertake, but an important one. It seems to go without saying, that redevelopment should always have a positive impact on those who are directly affected. But I never thought about how that happens. Of course we want people to be healthier, but how can we know we’re doing what’s best for those people without talking to them? 

Lieske Giese, director of the public health department, said if thinking goes into the planning process, the city can make well-thought out decisions about each part of the process, instead of results “just happening” by chance. 

She compared it to the development of Phoenix Park in downtown Eau Claire: “A lot of positive things came out of that, but we didn’t really think about at the time what the health impacts for that development were, especially low-income people who are living there.”

This is a great tool for communities, no doubt, but my worry is that it won’t be used. What now? There’s a 109-page report detailing specific recommendations, but it means nothing if they aren’t being referenced. In theory, they will be.

Boerner said the group will take an active role in the Cannery District development, keeping track of city meetings and reaching out to people in departments who can make sure recommendations are being discussed.

City Council Vice President Kathy Mitchell said Monday she would “do my best to make it part of any discussions that come forward regarding the Cannery District.” 

Hopefully, she’ll take it one step further. She said the Council would like to look at ways to make an HIA part of the city’s routine approval process, but because they can be used for just about anything it is hard to streamline a guide.

“It might be something that would be of interest to the Plan Commission or Council, or County Board,” Mitchell said. “Different groups are going to be interested in results depending on the topic, and that makes it a little difficult. But we plan to work on it.” 

It’s too soon to tell how useful an HIA will be in the long run, but my hope is it stays at the forefront of everyone’s brain in regards to the Cannery District. If the study proved anything, it proved the health of those living there depend on it. 

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