Healthy Communities Defined: The Social Determinants of Health

Six years ago, I transitioned from practicing land use planning to healthy communities planning. What exactly does that mean?

I went from managing development and subdivisions applications, use permits, and facilities planning to an emerging field in which individual and community health are viewed as the central core for planning. At the time, I only knew what healthy communities meant through my own intuition, but the job required professional depth.

Through exploring various articles, books and internet sites, I did not find a definition of "healthy communities" per se from any credible planning outlet. Most of the information I found on the subject was from public health sources and, while many were sufficient to get me started, in many instances, they were too academic or complex to seamlessly apply them to the planning world.

At the time, I had joined a high profile planning think tank, the California Planning Roundtable (CPR), which is an affiliate of the American Planning Association's California Chapter. Because healthy communities planning was an emerging issue, we decided to form a Healthy Communities (CPR HC) work group.

The first task on our agenda was to create a healthy communities definition written by planners for planners.

After much introspective reasoning and debate, we concluded that in order to have a succinct but meaningful definition, we would need to bring into our space other experts in the field working on healthy communities from no other place than public health. We also invited professionals from academia, community organizing, health advocacy, a health foundation, and an elected official.

Their collective input lead us to acquaint ourselves with the California Health in All Policies Task Force) which had created a framework in which public health is not the key player, but rather a model in which a multitude of disciplines and stakeholders come together to advance healthy communities development. Our end product, "Defining Healthy Communities,was partly built upon the work of the task force:

"A healthy community is one that strives to meet the basic needs of all residents; it is guided by health equity principles in the decision-making process; it empowers organizations and individuals through collaboration, civic and cultural engagement for the creation of safe and sustainable environments. Vibrant, livable and inclusive communities provide ample choices and opportunities to thrive economically, environmentally and culturally, but must begin with health."

This short definition is followed by a more comprehensive, but brief, compendium of aspects a healthy communities definition should reflect. Defining a healthy community should always include all voices in a community. CPR’s definition was created with the intention of providing a primer on what a healthy community can be to anyone interested in advancing this work.

During our year-long process, we also identified a powerful public health model: the social determinants of health. The CPR HC work group determined that in order to continue to advance understanding of healthy communities planning and to strengthen our collaborative relationship with public health professionals, we needed to come up with an introductory planning document on the subject. The end result was the white paper "The Social Determinants of Health for Planners: Live, Work, Play, Learn!"

Our ultimate goal is that these two documents will help planners, public health professionals, and community advocates to identify common areas in which various disciplines can support practices that ultimately can improve health outcomes through prevention, policy, and intervention.

About the California Planning Roundtable

The California Planning Roundtable CPR advances planning practice and influences policy through innovation and leadership to create healthy, prosperous and equitable communities. CPR is a resource for policy exploration, innovation and development for California planning to enhance the sustainability, equity and livability of California communities.

CPR focuses on emerging policy issues with cutting edge solutions. In 2000, the California Planning Roundtable was recognized by the American Planning Association with its Distinguished Service Award.

The California Planning Roundtable Healthy Communities work group strives to provide tools and resources to assist planners in informing Californians about why the places where we live, work, play, and learn have an inherent effect on community and individual health.


Healthy Communities Definition:

Social Determinants of Health for Planners:

California Planning Roundtable:

California Planning Roundtable Healthy Communities Work Group:

More Information

For more information please visit or contact Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP, at

You can always visit Plan4Health for more information about California Planning Roundtable and healthy communities work more generally.

Top image: Bicyclist on the San Antonio Riverwalk. Photo courtesy Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center Image Library.

About the Author
Miguel Vazquez, AICP, is the healthy communities planner for the Riverside University Health System-Public Health in Riverside, California. He was a 2016 APA Ambassador and is chair of APA's Diversity Committee.

May 4, 2017

By Miguel Vazquez, AICP