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State's first HIA conducted in upstate New York

Rochester HIA, Healthy Waterways/Sylvan Hemingway Jr

Health Impact Assessment studies (HIAs) have emerged as the benchmark for evaluating the effect of public policy on community health. In recent times HIAs have been in the spotlight, thanks to calls from advocates for one to be commissioned on hydraulic fracturing in New York.

Recently, the state’s first HIA has been completed, but not on a topic you might have expected.

“It is a little surprising that the first HIA in New York state would be done by the city of Rochester and would be focused on the issue of waterfront redevelopment,” says David Carpenter, director of the University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment.

He says HIAs are valuable exercises, and with this precedent, there’ll be added pressure on local and state governments to use the tool in policy decisions moving forward.

“I certainly hope that the general public responds by saying, ‘yes, we should be doing HIAs on all of these issues. Not just considerations of what this is going to do to the local economy and the state economy. Those are important concerns, but they are by no means the only concerns.”

“Too often we make decisions on development considering only economic factors and not what the health implications might be.”

Carpenter says the correlation between waterfront redevelopment and health isn’t immediately apparent, so it sets a relatively low benchmark for groups advocating for HIAs on issues like fracking or casino development.

Lead author on the Rochester HIA, Katrina Korfmacher says at first glance, changing the environment along a city’s waterfront may not seem to have impacts on health, but…

“Many of the changes in activities that might be occurring in our waterfront do have important implications for community health. And, the state required planning process doesn’t specifically require looking at those.”

That, says Korfmacher, is why the study was so important.

“We’re trying to use this one example to explain to people why it’s important to consider health in all policies and what it means to do that.”

Korfmacher says HIAs are powerful because they create a common language for the different levels of government to use in designing policies that protect public health.

“So many of our decisions are divided between different issue areas, different agencies, different levels of government. And when all of those partners can come together and focus on health it really helps to make better policies that are going to be better for communities and promote health in the long run,” she says.

“As we become more and more aware of how important environment is to health - how important prevention is and how that contributes to our society’s health care costs - this idea of a tool to work out how to design all of our policies to protect public health is a really powerful one.”

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