Most of us know that we have an obesity epidemic in our country. Even in one of the “happiest places on earth,” recent data from the California Health Interview Survey found that only 37.5 percent of adults in SLO County were of normal weight — which is even less than the percentage of normal-weight adults in the state as a whole (38.9 percent).
When addressing obesity and other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and asthma, most people focus on personal choices, such as improving diet and regular exercise. Rarely do people look at the built environment as a causative factor. Yet increasingly, elected officials, public health professionals, architects, city and county planners, agricultural professionals, and transportation officials have come to realize that the way we design our communities can have serious implications for the health of our nation.
The built environment includes all of the physical parts of where we live and work (e.g., homes, buildings, streets, open spaces, and infrastructure). The built environment influences a person’s level of physical activity, the way they get around, their access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the quality of the air they breathe, their water quality, the number of pedestrian and bicycle injuries in their communities, and their levels of social isolation and depression.
According to the 2002 National Transportation Statistics, since 1970, the US population has increased 37 percent, but the distance traveled by the nation’s fleet of cars, motorcycles, sport-utility vehicles, and small trucks increased 143 percent. We have become a nation defined by our highways — and with rising gas costs, long commutes, increasing traffic delays, and long work hours — it is easy to understand why many people may feel overwhelmed.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Dr. Richard Jackson, one of the leading experts in the field, said in 2009: “The modern America of obesity, inactivity, depression, and loss of community has not ‘happened’ to us. We legislated, subsidized and planned it this way.”
Consider a local example. Several years ago, a new subdivision was built in San Miguel. Houses were built near the Union Pacific railroad track, and there was no safe crossing close by for the children to walk to school. If children could have walked, it would have been a healthy 10-minute walk each way. Yet because of the lack of a crossing, the children are bused to school.
Through the intervention of the county Planning and Building Department and the Department of Public Works, a pedestrian-only crossing was authorized by the railroad for 16th Street with installation due by January 2012. But this has taken many staff hours and countless meetings to achieve.
On May 18, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Spanos Theatre at Cal Poly, Dr. Rich-ard Jackson will give a free lecture titled, “Confronting the Crisis, Crash and Collapse: Creating Co-Beneficial Solutions for Healthy Communities, Economic Growth, and Sustainable Resources.”
Jackson is currently the chair of the Environmental Health Sciences Division of the UCLA School of Public Health. He previously was the health officer for the state of California, and worked for the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as director of the National Center for Environmental Health.
His talk is being jointly sponsored by the Center for Science through Translational Research in Diet and Exercise (STRIDE) at Cal Poly; the County Public Health Department; the County Planning & Building Department; the Central Coast Chapter of the American Planning Association; Cal Poly’s Center for Sustainability in the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences; Healthy Eating Active Living San Luis Obispo; and the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation.
In addition to Dr. Jackson’s talk, a panel will discuss local efforts towards healthy communities. The panel will include Dr. Ann McDermott, STRIDE director; Dr. Penny Borenstein, county health officer; Jim Patterson, District 5 representative to the county Board of Supervisors; and Bill Spencer, co-owner of Windrose Farms. Adam Hill, chair of the Board of Supervisors, will give introductory remarks, and Richard Gearhart, KSBY anchor, will moderate the panel. For more information, contact Kathleen Karle at 781-4929.
Kathleen Karle is a division manager in the SLO Public Health Department. Chuck Stevenson is a division manager in the SLO County Planning and Building Department.