D MAGAZINE: Dallas Is Not a Very Healthy City

By Alex Macon

When your city gets dinged by something called a CityHealth report, it’s probably a sign that we could all stand to do some pushups, right? Kind of, although that’s more the domain of the American Fitness Index, which ranked Dallas this month as the 31st fittest city in the country. (Plano, with its median income that allows residents to buy gym memberships and healthy food, landed in 12th.)

CityHealth, an initiative of the public health policy advocacy group the de Beaumont Foundation and the healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente, instead looks at city-wide policies that can “improve residents’ health and quality of life.” The gist here is that while not everyone can afford gym memberships, everyone deserves to live in a city that takes steps to make people healthier. Public responsibility vs. personal responsibility and so forth.

For the sake of this report, CityHealth handed out medals to each city it evaluated. Dallas got “no medal,” which is somehow even more dispiriting than a numerical ranking that says Plano is in better shape than us. Let’s look at each of the criteria and see how Dallas’s individual policies, or lack thereof, fared.

Affordable Housing (No Medal): Dallas got no medal in this category, but CityHealth seems to have overlooked—or just done its research prior to—the city’s recent adoption of a comprehensive housing policy intended to shore up a gap in affordable housing. The report notes, correctly, that mandatory inclusionary zoning is banned by the state, but doesn’t take into account the fact that the ban is pretty easy for cities to get around. It will take time to judge how the city’s new housing policy, which includes density bonuses and incentives for developers to build affordable and mixed-use, works out. But, given a do-over, CityHealth should at least toss Dallas a bronze here.

Earned Sick Leave (No Medal): Dallas does not have a policy guaranteeing paid sick leave for employees, but, inspired by the adoption of an ordinance in Austin, labor activists are now petitioning to take the issue to voters in Dallas this fall. State lawmakers, incensed by cities exercising local control, are pushing back.

High Quality, Universal Pre-Kindergarten (Bronze): More than 30 percent of Dallas children are enrolled in Pre-K, and Dallas ISD has worked in recent years to expand its programs, which are proven to help kids perform better later on. But Dallas doesn’t meet CityHealth’s bar for better than bronze: “the implementation of additional quality standards, as measured by the city meeting more standards than the state requires.”

Complete Streets (Gold): Hey, here’s a good one! Dallas does indeed have a Complete Streets Initiative that calls for the city to design streets for pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses, not just the cars that drove Dallas urban planning for decades. Correcting the mistakes of the past takes time, and walking down the street in Dallas still too often feels like a life-or-death gamble, but the city’s coming around to the idea that you have to plan for people, not cars.

Alcohol Sales Control (No Medal): Per CityHealth, “Neighborhoods with high concentrations of alcohol outlets are linked to more drinking and higher rates of violence and driving under the influence. Policies that control the number of alcohol sales outlets can reduce crime, increase safety, and reduce spending on health care and criminal justice.” Also per CityHealth, things that Dallas does not have: “…local zoning and/or licensing laws addressing alcohol outlets,” and “best practices for comprehensive local zoning and/or licensing laws addressing alcohol sales for both on- and off-premises consumption, and both prospectively and retrospectively.”

Tobacco 21 (No Medal): To buy tobacco products in Dallas, you only have to be 18 years old, or in possession of some facial hair and enough persistent gumption to find the one convenience store in town that won’t ID you. The kids today are all vaping anyways.

Smoke-Free Indoor Air (Gold Medal): The city’s indoor smoking ban has been in place for years, and was mercifully extended to public parks in 2016.

Food Safety and Restaurant Inspection Rating (No Medal): The city, after dragging its feet for as long as possible, finally last year started sharing health inspection reports in a public online database. But those reports are only updated monthly, and restaurants are not required to post those scores on site.

Healthy Food Procurement (No Medal): Time to put some apples in the vending machines at City Hall.