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Home > Feature Articles > Sustainable Development Best Practices for Community Sustainability

Greening our Cities With Public Health

Personal choices for daily activity are strengthened by community design -- here's how.

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Plan and Build Spaces for Healthful Living

walking transportation "I learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life." A wise person... Debates about urban development often center on the environment, and usually bypass another consequence of growth: how it has brought havoc to lifestyles and personal health.

Advocates of the new urbanism have been publicizing the effects of land use and transportation on communities for more than a decade. Today, an old partner of planning –- public health -– has resurfaced to advance issues of smart growth, better community design, and equitable transportation systems.

Public health practitioners have found that access to settings or environments that support physical activity are essential to public health and the design of cities.

Roles of Planners, Architects, Developers and Engineers

City planners, architects, developers, and engineers are in a position to affect how community design and transportation systems support behavior and, ultimately, personal health.

A prevalent concept in the public health field is that individuals can affect their own behavior up to a point, but decisions that affect lifestyles, such as those involving community, transportation and building development practices, are best addressed through government and community efforts.

One in four Americans is obese and 61 percent are overweight

The result is an enormous national public health burden.

CDC researchers say that direct and indirect costs to the community, associated with physical inactivity may total more than $150 billion annually.

  • Land use practices and policies can support the design of active community environments that are close to home or work, are safely and easily accessible, and allow people to be physically active. Examples are mixed-used neighborhoods with sidewalks, trails, parks, and other activity facilities.
  • Transportation alternatives and policies can shift automobile trips to walking and bicycling, particularly to locations close to home such as schools, parks, and stores.
Simple, routine activities provide a tremendous opportunity to accumulate physical activity throughout the day to achieve the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. This daily activity strategy is also a better approach than advocating sports, aerobics, or weightlifting because structured activities only resonate with a small percentage of the population.

  • The safety aspect of communities is important. Each year, about 6,000 pedestrians are killed by automobiles, representing about one in every seven vehicle-related deaths. A Surface Transportation Policy Project study showed that the deaths are more likely to occur in newer, sprawling, Sunbelt communities where transportation systems are biased toward automobiles. Older cities that provide greater pedestrian amenities are safer, such as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Boston, and New York.

    Bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups have been organized to support safety and active community environments.

  • Diminishing mobility of the elderly and their access to grocery stores, medical care, or social outlets can be severely restricted unless the community’s land use and transportation policies are reexamined.

Public health issues also include health conditions brought about by air quality -- such as epidemic levels of asthma in children and vulnerable adults. By affecting the design of the community to reduce automotive exhaust, multiple public health benefits can result.

Source: Local Government Commission, Development and Public Health: Could our development patterns be affecting our personal health?

Center for Livable Communities

Active living is a way of life that integrates physical activity into daily routines, such as working in the yard, taking the stairs, and walking or bicycling for transportation.

25 percent of all trips are less than one mile, but 75 percent of those trips are made by car.

Americans use cars for 89 percent of all their trips

The number of trips the average American adult takes on foot each year dropped 42 percent between 1975 and 1995.

Children's trips to school by walking and bicycling dropped 40 percent in the past 20 years. Today, only 10 percent of children walk or bicycle to school, compared with a majority of children a generation ago, and these children now must be chauffeured to places that traditionally could be reached by foot or bicycle.

Children's health problems are compounded by schools minimizing requirements for physical education and recess periods.

IDEA: Draw a "WALKABLE TRIPS" map for your family...neighborhood...or workplace. Time each walk...and convert to how many calories will be shed, how much fuel will be saved...and how much vitamin D absorbed!

Sprawling urban development and auto-dominated streets make it nearly impossible for people to integrate walking or bicycling into their daily routines. As national physical activity levels decrease and obesity rates increase, local leaders are looking for ways to reverse these trends through smarter development patterns.

The Local Government Commission (LGC) assists communities to become more livable, walkable, and healthy through the following active living initiatives.

Active Living Leadership is a national initiative supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that supports government leaders as they create and promote policies, programs and places that enable active living.

Healthy Transportation Network supports local elected officials and city managers in California with creating more walkable and bike-friendly communities.

Livable community tips

  • Mixed-use development that includes housing, commercial, retail, civic and offices within reach of a short walk.
  • Compact develoment makes efficient use of land, preserves open space, lowers infrastructur cost, supports retail and transit services, and brings destinations closer together.
  • Slow, interconnected traffic-calmed streets ensure safe, convenient pedestrian and bicycle circulation.
  • Pedestrian-scale design balances auto-circulation and focuses on making pedestrian-oriented environments.
  • Transit-oriented and -adjacent development places higher intensity deveopment close to transit stopes, making transit a more viable alternative to the auto.
  • Mix of housing types provides equitable access to services for people of all income levels and life cycles.
See also: Smart Growth Network



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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