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The Health Zone

By Rachel Wallach

In 2008, Jacky M. Jennings (right), PhD ’03, MPH ’98, and Rachel J. Thornton, MD, PhD ’04, took on an unusual mission: Find ways to tweak Baltimore City’s proposed zoning code to improve health and save lives.

The researchers, both assistant professors in Pediatrics at the School of Medicine, worked with Baltimore City officials on a health impact assessment (HIA) of the proposed major revision of Baltimore’s zoning.

Reducing violent crime—a major cause of death in the city—was a top priority. The researchers found several studies noting the strong connection between the location and density of liquor outlets and increased violent crime.

In the world of zoning, “mixed-use” development is usually desirable, but the HIA found that the new code’s proposed increase in mixed-use zoning could lead to more alcohol outlets. So Jennings, who has a joint appointment in Epidemiology, and Thornton recommended decreasing the concentration of outlets.

Some of the researchers’ recommendations became part of the comprehensive rewrite now under consideration by the Baltimore City Council. Their work includes a provision to prevent new liquor outlets within 300 feet of existing ones, and another to give 98 liquor stores in residential areas two years to relocate, close or stop selling alcohol. The City Council is expected to vote on the new code by late 2013.

Earlier in the process, when the number of affected outlets was estimated at 128, a “crimes averted analysis” suggested that the new policies had the potential to prevent 871 violent crimes over two years—a 31 percent reduction—in the 300-foot areas around the closed outlets.

But Thornton and Jennings say what’s most important is that public health researchers, planners, and health department officials are at the table together, looking ahead for opportunities to evaluate long-term policy impacts and demonstrate how zoning can be used to promote health.