June 14, 2010

Transforming and Rewriting Baltimore: How the city’s new zoning code may affect your health and what you can do about it.

Beth J. Feingold

Beth J. Feingold

Baltimore's Food Deserts

Baltimore's Food Deserts

Baltimore is currently in the process of revising its zoning code for the first time since 1971. Since this process only happens once every 30-40 years, this is your once in a lifetime chance to influence what development in this city is going to look like for the next 40 years. Here’s a little info on what zoning has to do with health and what changes related to health are in store the newly released draft code which is open for public comment until September 10, 2010. Read on to get a sense of what to look for from the health perspective in the rewrite and how to participate in the rewrite process as a resident of Baltimore.

What does zoning have to do with public health?

If you are someone who cares about health in Baltimore, then you should care about the zoning code rewrite. Zoning influences the way a city looks from what kinds of houses and businesses can locate where, how big they can be, and often what the design of those buildings has to look like. Zoning codes comprise two pieces: a document that lists the categories of uses and a zoning map that assigns the zoning categories do different parts of the city. This is probably not news to you…but zoning is actually much broader than this. It dictates how much external lighting buildings can have, if and where farmers markets and urban agriculture can operate, how much parking both businesses and homes must offer, and also influences how “walkable” the city is.

The original goal of zoning was to protect ‘public health and welfare’ by separating healthy and unhealthy land uses – like keeping industry and manufacturing away from where people lived and went to school. Today, ‘public health and welfare’ encompasses much more than it used to – from safety from crime to mental health to food access. With this in mind, one can see how other aspects of the built environment and city-scape, such as green space, distribution of housing options and proximity to daily services, can play a role in influencing residents’ ability to lead healthy lives.

Especially important to consider in the new zoning code is the potential for influence on Baltimore’s food environment and what affect that could have on the city’s residents. The food environment encompasses what foods people have access to in the way of restaurants, supermarkets, corner stores and alternative food sources. Alternative food sources can create healthy food environments by providing opportunities to grow one’s own food in community gardens, support commercial urban agriculture enterprises and patronize farmers markets. Academic research has demonstrated that living near supermarkets and healthy grocery stores improves ones access to affordable nutritious foods and is associated with local residents eating healthier. Similar research on alternative food sources needs academic attention to demonstrate their successes or failures.

Zoning can also influence the locations and number of off premise alcohol outlets – such as liquor stores – that are allowed to locate in a small area. Restricting this use is associated with the positive public health outcome of lower crime rates in the area. Zoning also governs parking regulations for both cars and bicycles, which in turn can encourage healthy lifestyles by ensuring that cyclists have well lit and well designed areas to park their bikes. By restricting parking in downtown areas, zoning can help to alleviate traffic and also improve air quality.

By enabling the design of healthy environments in the first place, the examples above are just a few of the many topics in the zoning code and mapping process that can take a proactive approach to addressing public health and health inequities in Baltimore. Ample opportunities exist to guide the rewrite of the code towards addressing issues such as climate change, an aging population, and rising energy costs.

There are at least three current efforts working to improve the health promoting potential of the new code. The city’s Food Policy Task Force has been instrumental in working to improve the food environment in the city, especially in neighborhoods that lack access to healthy foods. You can also look out for an upcoming health impact assessment – an estimation of the potential health impacts – of the zoning code re-write later this summer from a group at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Also expected to be released this summer is a “zoning code diagnosis” from The Public Health Working Group – a collaborative group of students and faculty from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the Baltimore City Health & Planning Departments – a document identifying areas of the zoning code that specifically address health issues. The Baltimore Sun ran an article today on this topic.

If you’re looking to get involved….check out the three things you can do below!

How can I make a difference in what Baltimore’s zoning code will look like?

  1. Send in your comments on the code: There are instructions on how to comment on the code on Baltimore City’s Dept of Planning’s website. Log in, read it, and share your thoughts with the city. It is open for public comment through September 10th. It is long. For a little guidance, here are some sections where food and environment related issues are covered:
  2. Table 8-1 and 9-1: Residential zoning districts permitted and conditional uses

    Table 8-2 & Table 9-2: Impervious surfaces as percentage of a lot

    Table 10-1: Permitted and conditional uses in commercial districts

    § 12-9 – Rowhouse Mixed Use Overlay District

    § 14-305 – Permanent Community Gardens

    § 14-310 – Urban Agriculture

    § 16-701 to 16-703 – Bicycle Parking design and locations

    You can check out the Table of Contents (pages i – x) for other sections relevant to your interests.

  3. Attend a public meeting: See the invitation below from the Planning Department. Come learn about zoning in Baltimore at one of the 5 presentations & discussions they are holding across the city between the 14th and 29th of June.
  4. Get more information:  Here are three helpful articles that should get you started on exploring the connections between zoning and health.

Ashe M., Jernigan D., Kline JD and R. Galaz (2003) Land Use Planning and the Control of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Fast    Food Restaurants. 93(9): 1404-1408.

Healthy Zoning Fact Sheet and Talking Point. Public Health Law and Policy

Maantay J.(2001) Zoning Equity and Public Health American Journal of Public Health. 91(7): 1044-1041

Maantay J (2002) Zoning Law, Health and Environmental Justice: What’s the Connection? (2002) Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 30(4): 572-593.

Schilling J and Linton LS. (2005) The public health roots of zoning: In search of Active Living’s legal genealogy. 28(2, Suppl 2): 96-104.


  1. Posted by Ralph

    This a fantastic post! Thank you for writing it. I’ll do my best to be a part of the process!

  2. Pingback: » Junk Food Wars: Banning the Bans on Unhealthy Food CKP National Blog: Resources and Updates on Our National Initiatives

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