Public health groups enter urban planning fray

At last Thursday’s San Joaquin Council of Government’s Meeting, a few new faces graced the speaker’s podium to comment on the region’s draft Sustainable Community Strategy. Unlike the usual meeting attendees, these speakers were not planners. They were Bill Mitchell, the Public Heath Director of San Joaquin County and Will Barrett, policy manager for the American Lung Association’s California chapter.  But despite not being planners, they were just as passionate in their pleas for more walkable, compact communities.

Health groups are increasingly vocal in advocating for better communities, including more transportation options

Health groups are increasingly vocal in advocating for better communities, including more transportation options

Their presence highlights a rising trend – urban planning isn’t just for urban planners anymore. That might sound a bit odd, but increasingly, other disciplines are interested in shaping the built environment, notably within the realm of public health. In a recent report published by the American Lung Association, many chronic health issues prevalent in California’s Central Valley can be combatted through intelligent urban planning.

The ALA report suggests that by investing in smarter development that puts people over cars, communities could reap huge health cost benefits. It states, “With community planning that prioritizes walking, biking, transit and infill development, San Joaquin County residents could see significant reductions in respiratory health impacts and costs related to traffic pollution.”

The associated numbers of focusing on walkability are impressive:

  • $415 million in health-related costs savings by 2035
  • 2,490 fewer lost work days in the San Joaquin Valley
  • 14,499 fewer asthma attacks across Kern, Fresno and San Joaquin Counties

It’s not just asthma, either. According to the report, 30 and 40 percent of adults and children, respectively, are considered obese in San Joaquin County. With children no longer walking to school as much as previous generations coupled with declining amounts of physical activity, our neighborhoods are increasingly dictating our long-term health outcomes.

Ironically, much of the public health discipline can trace its roots back to urban form. Anyone familiar with the founding of epidemiology may recall John Snow, the physician who connected the source of a London cholera outbreak to a public water pump after studying neighborhood population travel patterns in 1854. From that point forward, urban planning and public health became intertwined.

Health groups are in favor of reducing air pollution, which can be accomplished through strong urban planning

Health groups are in favor of reducing air pollution, which can be accomplished through strong urban planning

While not as obviously linked to the urban form as Snow’s revelation was 160-years ago, it’s nonetheless true that even today’s built environments are affecting the health of those who live within their boundaries. Often, these affects go unnoticed but carry serious implications for our well-being – especially in San Joaquin County.

In the Central Valley, our built environment has been shaped almost exclusively by our dependence on personal vehicles. San Joaquin County alone has over 40,000 adults and 14,000 children suffering from asthma. According to Barrett, the Valley’s record-high asthma rates can be traced to emissions released by the vehicles which the majority of Valley residents depend on to get them from point A to point B.

“Generally, the San Joaquin Valley is home to some of the most polluted communities in the nation,” said Barrett in a previous interview. “It’s traffic pollution from cars, trucks and heavier diesel trucks.”

This is why it’s encouraging to see Mitchell and Barrett at a community meeting focused on planning. Their presence represents a more inclusive dialog and a broader array of interests being brought to the table when discussing how to plan for the future. This includes agencies who represent disadvantaged communities that may have otherwise been unaware of the costs associated with urban sprawl and a culture of automobile dependence.

As we continue debating how our communities will grow, it behooves us to include everyone in the conversation. Planning is not just about what façade to place on a building, or how much parking to include at a planned commercial center; it’s a reflection of what we value as a community, and citizen health should be at the top of the list.




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Categories: Community Commentary, Smart Growth

3 Comments on “Public health groups enter urban planning fray”

  1. Jon Seisa
    April 29, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Thank you, this is a very interesting read.

    Besides the affects of the built environment, I see another issue here. Though the air quality in the Central Valley is caused by fossil fuel emissions from vehicles, driving, all kinds of transportation, rail, and industry and manufacturing, including aviation emissions, to be more sensible it must also be considered that this poor air quality of the region is mainly due in large part to the unique regional temperature inversion phenomenon indicative to the Central Valley which traps and confines with concentrated levels the stagnate pollution within the valley, since it is surrounded by a wall of mountains. The phenomenon is most notorious during the summer months. Whereas, in other parts of the nation the air is recycled and replenished from west to east more readily due to a lack of natural barriers. So in a nutshell, the entire true picture reveals another significant contributor to the poor air quality problem in the Central Valley that is otherwise not being addressed by New Urbanism enthusiasts to its greatest potential, or being leveraged to the benefit of their quest.

    Hence, this phenomenon aggravates the situation to an even greater health disadvantage than other regions of the nation, and consequently there should be more immense priority delegated to it and to the need to urgently consider new alternative and unconventional ways to transport people to their destinations and goods to market and home. With this said, there absolutely should be more political and government involvement and funding to expedite circumventing solutions to the Central Valley’s unique poor environmental air quality situation, as well as empowering the private sector’s innovative know-how through competition to develop new breakthroughs, giving top priority to alternative green transportation modes, knowing this area will double in population by 2050.

    The Central Valley and its cities really should literally be a living lab of public transportation experimentation and breakthroughs for this particular endeavor. After all, this IS the 21st Century. The CA-High Speed Rail is one statewide solution for commuting vast distances and dissuading fossil fuel oriented commuting, but municipal, local and district alternative new transportation modes need to be radically investigated and pursued besides the typical BRT and light rail systems, i.e. store-to-home cargo delivery systems, canal transportation network systems, drone delivery systems, urban transport pods, the design of live-work communities/neighborhoods, etc.

  2. April 29, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Excellent article. Stockton needs to be a smaller more walkable entity made up of sustainable neighborhoods. Each with their own small retail hub commited to enhanced quality of life for the residents.

  3. Jon Seisa
    May 7, 2014 at 10:46 pm #

    Here is another angle on the San Joaquin Valley poor air quality health issues—- pesticides are causing the asthma epidemic…

    This 2004 study explores the epidemic of asthma among children and adolescents in the San Joaquin Valley, focused on patient demographics and poor air quality due to pollutants:

    But this subsequent 2010 document cites the particulates that cause asthma have everything to do with pesticides used in mass AG production:

    This case is concurred in the comment section of this highly fascinating firsthand account of the following article that logs the travel and tour of the San Joaquin Valley farms by the food journalist of the New York Times:

    Consequently, “organic farming” and “sustainable farming” appear to be critical areas for further innovative development and exploration to combat air pollutants and improve air quality and ground water contamination from pesticides, for what use is urban walkability and biking if this merely exposes the health of the populace to more open-air and airborne pollutants and poisonous pesticide particulates?

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