Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 32 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: William West [*]

The Four Pandemics Explained and Addressed by Land Use Law and Policy


The Land Use Law Center’s Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project addresses four pandemics plaguing public health: COVID-19 and its variants, housing insecurity, racial inequity, and climate change. Viewed through an epidemiological lens, our usage of the word “pandemic” is unconventional because three of the four pandemics are not contagious diseases. Despite this critique’s lack of imagination, defending our usage of the word is instructive for clarifying the project’s goals. The Land Use Law Center defines each of the four pandemics as such because each occurs over a wide geographic area, is spread by common causes, and is harmful to public health. Describing these pandemics, how they interact, and how local municipalities are working to address them is the purpose of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project.

Pandemics are traditionally thought of as infectious diseases that rapidly spread across international boundaries. Referring to national problems that are not infectious diseases as pandemics, however, is not without precedent or support. The Oxford Advanced American Dictionary efines pandemic as “a disease that spreads over a whole country or the whole world.” Merriam Webster defines pandemic as “occurring over a wide geographic area and typically affecting a significant proportion of the population.”  Further, epidemics, a related phenomenon, are not confined to infectious diseases. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to the obesity epidemic and opioid overdose epidemic as such despite neither being caused by bacteria or a virus nor being strictly related to a communicable disease. Colloquially, any problem that is widespread and harmful is often described as a pandemic. Moreover, racism, climate change, and environmental pollution have been described as pandemics discretely in academia.

COVID-19, racial inequity, climate change, and housing insecurity adversely affect the health of significant cohorts. The racial inequity pandemic’s effects on health are seen in food desertsfood swamps, heat islands, asthma rates, toxic air and water, and pedestrian related injuries. Housing insecurity plays a crucial role in health as a determinant of chronic illnesses, mental health, and medical care. Climate change’s exacerbation of extreme weather events, such as fires, heat islands, flooding, storm surges, extreme winds, and drought, among others, all have obvious and profound adverse effects on public health. They are regarded and responded to locally like the hazards that they are and because of the extraordinary health risks that they pose.

Syndemics is a field of study embedded in epidemiology and public health that also helps in understanding our project’s search for mitigation measures using local land use authority. A syndemic is “a set of linked health problems involving two or more afflictions interacting synergistically and contributing to excess burden of disease in a population.” According to Emily Mendenhall, a public health professor at Georgetown University, “syndemics” describes “how a pandemic like COVID-19 ‘clusters with pre-existing conditions, interacts with them, and is driven by larger, economic, and social factors.’” This term, then, aptly describes how the COVID-19 pandemic interacts with the other pandemics of climate change, racial inequity, and housing insecurity. The four pandemics are not happening in isolation. They are intertwined, reinforcing, and compounding. The study of these pandemics can be done in silos, but at the local level they require a broader view and response.

The Land Use Law Center’s Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project explores how local land use law can mitigate the adverse public health effects of each of the pandemics, and it also, as local leaders must, explores how to understand and address the cumulative effects of all four. See for example our recent blog on how Portland is using its land use powers to address them all.

For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is a free resource featuring best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.

[*] William West is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Scholar in the Land Use Law Center.

Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Scholar in the Land Use Law Center.


The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
  2. Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
  3. The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
  4. Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
  5. State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
  6. COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
  7. Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
  8. Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
  9. Urban Heat Islands and Equity
  10. Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
  11. The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
  12. The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
  13. Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
  14. Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
  15. Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
  16. Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic
  17. Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health
  18. The Pandemic Plan for Healthy Buildings
  19. Remediating Distressed Properties to Improve Public Health
  20. Housing, a Crucial Determinant of Health
  21. ADU Introduction
  22. NIMBY Restrictions to Poison the Prospects of Accessory Dwelling Units to Address Housing Insecurity
  23. Zoning to Fill the Missing Middle Housing Gap
  24. Old Tools to Fight Housing Insecurity: Adaptive Reuse and Infill Development
  25. Racial Impact Analyses
  26. A New Era of Equity-Based Comprehensive Planning…Finally
  27. Equity-Based Comprehensive Plans: Land Use Policies to Correct Past Disparities
  28. Reversing the Legacy of Redlining: Reducing Exposure to Toxins and Pollutants Through Land Use Law Reform
  29. Addressing the Four Pandemics – A Case Study
  30. Health Impact Assessments: A New Tool for Analyzing Land Use Plans, Zone Changes, and Development Projects
  31. Putting the “e” in TOD

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