Planning and the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic continues to impact communities across the country.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate an increase in the number of overdose fatalities, with more than 63,000 people dying from substance use disorder in 2016 alone.

We know that addressing a crisis of this scale and magnitude demands resources from all levels of government and the private sector. And, we also know, that despite increased attention, communities continue to struggle with the challenges of the epidemic, working to manage the immediate needs of residents experiencing addiction and the long-term impacts of deeply disinvested communities.

But, what is the role of planning in this crisis?

The Planners4Health project in Pennsylvania captured the experience of many planners: substance abuse was identified as the number one health-related issue in the 67 counties across the state, but was also an issue that planners did not feel equipped to address.

"The survey we conducted helped us to understand what our members need and highlighted the opioid epidemic as the next phase of our healthy communities work," said Justin Dula, AICP, Planners4Health project manager and county and regional manager at the Delaware County Planning Department.

"As planners, we often feel more comfortable leveraging Complete Streets policies to increase opportunities for physical activity or making healthy food more accessible by encouraging urban farming or community gardens," Dula said. "This is a new way to think about applying planning expertise to support mental health and recovery — and we are still trying to figure out what that means."

A summary of Planners4Health survey results, showing which issues are most pressing to county planners and which issues planners believe they can change. Image courtesy Healthy Communities in PA Task Force.

In 2018, APA's Planning and Community Health Center and Healthy Communities Collaborative hosted a series of webinars to explore the intersection of planning and the opioid epidemic. Designed to share local experiences and national resources, the series is also meant to launch a network of members and peer professionals working to understand the crisis and our roles in it.

The first session, Introduction to the Opioid Epidemic, grounded the series in a public health framework, featuring substance use disorder and chronic disease prevention expert Liz Blackwell-Moore: How do we understand addiction? How are public health professionals engaging other sectors to address this crisis?The session also shared the work of the National Association of Counties, highlighting a recently released report on the epidemic as well as the collaboration between the National League of Cities and their efforts to use GIS to understand the crisis in specific communities.

The second session, Responding to the Opioid Epidemic, looked at how communities can respond to the opioid crisis. Best or emerging practices and community experiences were highlighted. Dr. Brandon Marshall from the Brown University School of Public Health shared his experiences with Prevent Overdose RI, Rhode Island's drug overdose surveillance and information dashboard. Dr. Robert Park from East Tennessee State University shared his experiences in opening a non-residential opioid treatment center and the challenges involved.

The third session, Planning and the Opioid Epidemic, looked at how planners can play a role in fighting the opioid crisis. An example from Kensington, Pennsylvania, that used Trauma Informed approach to community development was discussed. This approach involves building community resilience to curb issues such as opioid crisis. This session also discussed legal issues involved in zoning for community residences including recovery residences and sober living homes.

Top image: Cover of Journal of Change featuring the opioid epidemic. Photo by Flickr user Governor Tom Wolf (CC BY 2.0).

About the Author
Sagar Shah, PhD, is a research associate in APA's Planning and Community Health Center.

January 4, 2018

By Sagar Shah, PhD, AICP