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.
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.
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.