Many health choices are personal, such as whether you choose to take the dog on an extra walk instead of spending an hour on the sofa eating Doritos watching reality TV. But local government also has a big hand in ways you can stay healthy, by making policy decisions that keep residents safe, in shape and secure. And by improving resident health, local governments can help towns be economically healthy too.
In a newsletter for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a nonprofit information source for member towns such as Mt. Lebanon, “A Healthy Community = A Strong Local Economy,” a University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings chart shows a strong relationship between quality of health and safety, and financial health.
“…Everything is connected,” writes Mary Eleanor Wickersham. “Educational attainment, which affects poverty, is a primary predictor of good health and a fundamental component of job creation. Jobs not only reduce poverty, but they also affect health care infrastructure and access to care, which affect quality of life. A measure of quality of life is good health. [The studies] also provide strong evidence that healthy communities and economically vibrant communities are often one and the same.”
The article goes on to suggest that policy makers, such as elected officials and city managers, use resident health as a factor to consider when making decisions.
Some of the ways Mt. Lebanon’s local government keeps us healthy and safe are obvious, such as operating well-run police and fire departments, providing and publicizing safe walking routes to school, offering timely trash pickup and recycling, serving nutritious school lunches and establishing codes that require owners to keep property safe and free of vermin. Our school district’s high percentage of graduates continuing on to higher education is well touted. Having a first-class hospital within our borders also is a tremendous benefit, as is the government support of such agencies as Outreach Teen & Family Services, which serves teens and their families, or Mt. Lebanon Village, which serves seniors.
Other healthy things Mt. Lebanon does include offering free public space for farmers’ markets to provide an outlet for farmers and fresh veggies for residents; seeking grants for parks, natural areas, bike trails, and maintaining Mt. Lebanon’s walkability. Walking tours such as the architecture tours sponsored by the Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon are mentioned on a list of ideas from ICMA.
“In my mind the health and safety of the municipality is paramount,” says Commission President Kristen Linfante. “Literally everything we do in one way or another is related to the quality of life and health for our residents, from having sound infrastructure like well-maintained roads (including timely repairs and good snow removal) and effective sewer systems and storm water management, to the more obvious ones like well-maintained parks and recreational areas, such as trails, fields, the pool and tennis courts that encourage people to get outdoors and stay active.”
Many health priorities are codified and become law. Municipal planner Keith McGill cites “constant emphasis on improving pedestrian safety, the recent sidewalk expansion policy and the requirement for the provision of bike parking with all new developments” as examples of health-related decisions instituted in the 2005 update to Mt. Lebanon’s zoning ordinance.
Such attention to detail leads directly to our economic success.
“The municipality continues to receive strong interest from the development community,” McGill says, citing Dunkin Donuts, SpringHill Suites, Primanti Bros., Jade Grille, BRGR, Life is Sweet, La Gourmandine and Burgerz and Dogz as examples of some of the recent businesses to select Mt. Lebanon. “In addition, we have been approached by a number of developers/businesses who would like to be in Mt. Lebanon but are unable to find an available location.”
Our commercial districts continue to have historically low vacancy rates, he notes. “We continue to experience strong investment into our residential housing stock in the form of additions, remodeling and even tear-down and rebuilds of existing single family homes.”
It’s not all brick and mortar. McGill says the high number of block party permits issued each year as evidence that we are a community of neighborhoods, with residents who care about each other.
“I am continually impressed and grateful at the interest, number and talent of the residents who volunteer for various municipal boards, as well as those who attend municipal meetings to actively participate and share their input on various issues,” McGill says.
That’s not just McGill’s impression either. In 2011, a National Conference on Citizenship study found that communities where residents attended meetings, helped neighbors, registered to vote (and voted) as well as volunteered, were more economically resilient. A 2012 follow-up study found “communities with greater nonprofit density and stronger social cohesion were not hit as hard during the Great Recession….Civic engagement can encourage people to feel attached to their communities, and create an infrastructure that encourages people to invest, spend and hire.”
The commission will continue to make decisions with health and safety in mind, Linfante says. “The charge has been made clear by the residents who live here. They expect and rely on the services and amenities we provide. They know we are looking out for their quality of life. It’s why they live here.”
See excerpts from the 2013 Comprehensive Plan to learn how the municipality is planning for a healthier future.
The ICMA lists ideas for towns to try to keep their populations healthy. Here are some that Mt. Lebanon already does:
- Consider open space areas to provide active play areas in high-density neighborhoods
- Encourage mixed-use development
- Provide pedestrian areas and non-motorized vehicle parking
- New construction inspections that consider safety and environmental hazards
- Sidewalks and safe crosswalks that encourage walking and biking
- Access routes to schools that allow and encourage walking
- Inspection and efforts to reduce substandard housing
- Controlling crime to make people feel safe to be outside
- Monitor water quality
- Limit number of septic tanks
- Establish recycling program
Revenue & taxation
- Free or low-cost space to encourage farmers’ markets
- Seek grants for water enhancements, parks, natural areas, bike trails, and analyze community’s “walkability.”
Parks & recreation
- Sufficient parks and active playgrounds and adequate sidewalks to provide access within a half mile from all homes to encourage exercise
- Policies that allow public use of school recreation facilities after-hours through cooperative agreements
- Programs that engages all ages in physical activity
- Planning for terrorism, infectious disease outbreaks and natural disasters
- Emergency response for incidents and accidents
Tourism/Resident Quality of Life
- Creating hiking trails
- Becoming bike-friendly
- Historical walking tours
- Using cemetery green space for walking
- Improved signage that promotes recreation opportunities
- Sharing information
Mt. Lebanon’s Comprehensive Plan is a road map for the direction the community is heading for the next 10 years. Adopted in late 2013, the plan outlines actions the municipality can take to promote community vitality, with goals, objectives and actions categorized as immediate, short-term, medium-term, long-term and ongoing. Two important areas of concentration in the plan are improving walkability and increasing environmental sustainability.
Some of the related action items are:
Complete a Comprehensive Pedestrian and Bike Plan.
Explore opportunities to infill sidewalks within existing established areas.
Identify opportunities to expand overall pedestrian system
Work with existing businesses and the School District to construct a community-wide system of bike parking options. Ongoing.
Install recycling receptacles near existing waste receptacles in neighborhood business districts. Short term.
Consider benefits, opportunities and trade-offs of green infrastructure systems in all areas of municipality investment. Long term.
Update the Zoning Ordinance to include regulations and associated incentives for energy efficiencies such as CNG fueling and electric charging stations and solar and/or wind alternatives. Long term.
Succeed in dialogue and working together with the school district to expand available active and passive recreation facilities available to residents and maximize space in the community. Ongoing.
Evaluate all alternatives that would make additional field space available for community sports activities.
Address athletic fields needs in the community to lessen stress on existing fields such as, but not limited to, installing artificial turf and lights at Wildcat and Middle Fields or, alternatively, constructing athletic fields at Robb Hollow and Cedar Boulevard.
Consider how McNeilly Field, inclusive of two rectangular fields and a baseball/softball field with supporting infrastructure and amenities, can contribute to overall municipal field space and pursue improvements accordingly.
Determine if additional field space still needs to be provided and prioritize the provision of that space in consideration of other planned park and recreation upgrades. Short term.
Evaluate the impacts and determine the course of action for constructing an offleash exercise area for dogs and/or parks where on-leash exercise could occur.
Consider factors such as space for normal interaction; secure fencing and gates; cleanup stations; water and shelter; and a separate area for small dogs.
Work towards the implementation of the desired course of action. Medium-term.
Recognize the role of recreation facilities as a community resource and continue to reach out to residents to determine how and to what extent their needs for and access to these important resources are being met. Short-term.
Continue to advance municipal efforts that have been initiated and financial commitments that have been made to address major community recreation facility upgrades such as the community ice rink, swim center and tennis center. Ongoing.
Read the entire 2013 Comprehensive Plan here.