If We Build It, Will People Be More Healthy?

(Image: from "Designing Health Communities")

(Image: from "Designing Health Communities")

It’s called the “built environment” and if you’re a public health whiz, you know exactly what that means. If you don’t, Dr. Richard Jackson, Chair of UCLA’s Environmental Health Sciences Department believes it’s critical you do.

“By the built environment,” he explains, “we mean everything around us that was changed by human activity, homes, building, streets that we’re surrounded by.” In other words, it’s where we live our lives, work, or go to school. When the car came along, the built environment seemed to build up on its own without any thought to health impacts. “We’ve made it hard to walk,” he says. “We’ve engineered physical activity out of our daily lives.”

Jackson hosts a new documentary series, Designing Healthy Communities, that debuts tonight in Los Angeles and rolls out across the country over the next several weeks on PBS. In the series he makes the case that the built environment itself is so unhealthy, it causes people to be unhealthy. Among other things, he links this unhealthy built environment to two of the greatest health disorders of our day, obesity and diabetes.

But the built environment does not need to cause so much harm. The concept of the built environment, Jackson says, is both “relatively new and desperately old.” In the 1800s people working in urban planning overlapped with people working in public health, he says. Two of the seven founders of the American Public Health Association were urban planners. But then urban planning as a component of health seemed to fall by the wayside after the advent of the automobile which led to suburban sprawl, abandoned and impoverished inner cities, and isolation.

In Part I of his series, Jackson calls for the “retrofitting of suburbia.”

Episode 1: Retrofitting Suburbia – (preview) from MPC on Vimeo.

Designing Healthy Communities looks across the country, both at struggles and solutions. To get a sense of what’s happening specifically in California, I talked to the Prevention Institute‘s Jeremy Cantor. “California is a big state and it’s still very auto-dependent,” Cantor told me, “and there is a lot of work to be done to create healthier communities in California, to create built environments that promote health.”

While there is work to be done, there is also hope. The passage of AB 32, California’s ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has led to a level of engagement and innovation in the state, Cantor says. He pointed to policy approaches including the Health in All Policies [PDF] Task Force created by Governor Schwarzenegger to local efforts such as Safe Routes to Schools, helping parents and schools to organize ways for children to be able to walk to school.

“There’s a lot going on, excitement and dialogue about how to do this in the state,” Cantor says. “The key is going to be to figure out how to do all those things at the same time.”

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