Healthier, smarter growth

Healthier, smarter growth

February 5th, 2012 in Opinion Times

For years, county leaders here have considered sound urban planning mainly as a political issue -- an issue tainted by the specter of intruding on personal property rights and free enterprise. As a result, they have regularly rejected calls for comprehensive land-use planning for the unincorporated areas of the county. But as it turns out, the lack of urban planning in suburbia -- here and elsewhere -- is now being acknowledged as a critical public health issue.

Unguided sprawl, public health experts have learned, almost invariably leads to poorer health, isolation, depression, reduced longevity and stunted essential personal growth in children. And that premise is being validated across the country.

Such cautionary findings should prompt the County Commission to make comprehensive land-use planning in the unincorporated areas of the county an integral element of its public responsibility as it embarks on the regional growth planning. The latter effort is due to start soon to address regional infrastructure needs spurred the arrival of Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and related industrial and residential growth here.

Car-dependency, poor health

Studies confirm what common-sense observation shows -- that the typical suburban pattern of sprawl has made Americans excessively dependent on driving a car somewhere to do almost anything that most people, of any age, want or need to do.

Statistics on the suburban trends are hard to ignore. At the October meeting of the American Public Health Association, New York Times health columnist Jane Brody reported last week, there were nearly 300 presentations "on how the built environment inhibits or fosters the ability to be physically active and get healthy food." The latter point referred to "food deserts" in both suburban and urban areas where stores with nutritionally adequate foods are not found within walking distance.

As one public health expert put it, Brody reported, our "built environment" -- how we design where we live, work, shop and play -- has usually fragmented these components in suburban areas in a way that has "engineered physical activity out of children's lives." It also has isolated adults in places that separate them from friends, family, meeting places and much of the physical activity, especially walking, that adults used to enjoy and take for granted.

Shorter lifespans coming

Unless that changes, Dr. Richard Jackson, professor and chairman of environmental health sciences at the University of California, told Brody, Americans born since 1980 will be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

Without adequate provision of sidewalks, bike and pedestrian trails, nearby parks, schools, playgrounds and community-based clusters of retail facilities, suburban families typically become utterly dependent on driving themselves and their children to most everything they need to do.

Jobs and shopping are miles away, often requiring long commute times. Children now rarely walk or bicycle to school, though fully two-thirds of children did so less than four decades ago. The lack of places to bicycle, walk and play particularly thwarts children's need for exploration, growth and development of an essential sense of autonomy.

Just as the distance from many suburbs to friends, family members and core activities inhibits walking and physical activities, it conversely fosters more stay-at-home isolation. That sentences children and many elderly and handicapped people, as well as other adults, to lonely boring hours of sitting, watching television and playing more sedentary computer games and, too often, harmful weight gain.

That, in turn, predictably leads to the demise of their health. Children used to rarely have diseases associated with age and obesity. Now, with obesity plaguing a third of American adults and children, and nearly as many over-weight, growing numbers of children and adults have Type II diabetes, heart disease and fatty livers, Brody reported.

Many studies confirm the downward health trends in the age of car-dependency. In 1970, only one state had more than 20 percent of its population ranked as obese. Now, only one state, Colorado, has a population with as few as 20 percent obese.

A healthier growth path

Fostering a better built environment would not normally encroach on private property. Most of the county's unincorporated rural land, where most of the projected growth here will occur, is zoned in a number of classifications, from commercial to residential to agricultural.

So it is still early enough, though barely, to designate where zoning changes may be made to encourage smart growth and timely infrastructure development before developers swamp county government with requests for re-zoning for speculative development, which is not -- and should not be considered as -- an automatic property right. There is also still time to adopt better rules for development -- to include sidewalks, bike paths, playgrounds, school zones, signage and billboard limits, and retail clusters, as opposed to strip-zoning on major corridors. But this window of time for better planning will close rapidly.

Families and developers, as well, should envision, and hold out for, neighborhoods that get the built environment right -- that make walking, safe bicycling, socializing with neighbors, and play areas the norm, not the exception, even near and along major road corridors. The vision of tree-lined boulevards for major corridors, with center green islands and sidewalks and bikeways alongside, should be a priority, not a jettisoned dream.

Cities and counties around the country are moving to make their sterile, car-dependent, suburban areas greener and healthier, more pedestrian-and-bicycle friendly and more people-oriented. For our community's long-term value, for the quality of life that promotes economic growth rather than hinders it, and for the improved health of our citizens, that should be county government's goal, as well.