Great Communities Are Healthy and Healing Places

Published by — “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

This year’s theme for the recent Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference was “Healthy and Healing Places.”

Dr. Richard Jackson was their on-point keynote speaker. A pediatrician and Master of Public Health, Jackson has worked to improve public health by tackling underlying conditions of ill health, namely physical environments and public policies that actively promote disease. He all but rails against the on-going degradation of children’s health — rising rates of obesity, asthma and mental illness. Many kids are growing up to be adults doomed to struggle with chronic health issues. Medical science can prolong the quantity of life, but only by restoring the health of our land, habits, and communities will the quality of our lives also improve.

He tells this story:

During his distinguished career, he directed the National Center on Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, aka the CDC. Their head office is in Atlanta, a hip, happening city, but also one gridlocked by bad urban planning and endless freeways — the poster child for urban sprawl.

One sweltering summer day, Jackson was stuck in traffic on an 8-lane highway watching an older woman trudge along the freeway’s shoulder, breathing smog, lugging bags of groceries in each hand. Jackson knew she was returning to her low-income neighborhood that had no grocery store — such places are “food deserts” — from a wealthier one that did.

“If she collapses and dies, it will be heatstroke resulting from an absence of sidewalks, trees, and good planning. Currently, the difference in life expectancy between people in poor neighborhoods and those in comfortable ones is 10 years.” Where you live can be very bad for your health.

By contrast, Jackson shows us an awe-inspiring example of urban planning that reversed terrible decisions made in the past. Historically, the Cheonggyecheon River ran freely through downtown Seoul, Korea. In the 1960s, city “improvers” poured concrete into its large bed and built an elevated highway. Then, in the 2000s, a visionary mayor wanted a more eco-friendly environment and so initiated the removal of the concrete and highway, and the restoration of the stream itself. Opposition was loud and strong. But the 5.8-mile linear park was a resoundingly-popular success. People stroll, bike, hang out, meet up, and have lunch. Instead of an industrial gash through the city’s center, people have a lovely greensward. Air quality improved. Downtown became more accessible by bus, subway, bike and foot, so traffic thinned. With more people using alternatives to cars, even the outer rungs of the city saw traffic relief.

Uncovering America’s rivers is one of Jackson’s pet goals. As a professor at UCLA, he fights with the state of California to uncover the Los Angeles river. Good luck with that. He’s got guts and vision, this guy.

So, giant Take-Away #1: communities should make all planning decisions with the health of their grandchildren in mind. Reviving our land’s health will take at least two generations, but we’ll reap benefits in the process too.

Dr. Jackson Take-Away #2: tax the bejesus out of everything that is bad for us. Start with sugar, which is killing us. Don’t even get him started on super-sizing.

“Our food system is designed to make us unhealthy. Things that are bad for us are half as expensive as they were in 1980; and the reverse is true. In 1983, 32 percent of the population reported having excellent life function. In 2010 the percentage dropped to 13. Smoking is down, but obesity is way up. In 1983, 17 percent of the population reported doing no physical activity during the week; in 2010 it soared to 52 percent.”

In 1960 our government subsidized neither fructose (sugar) nor ethanol (corn-based gasoline). Now the subsidies are huge. Conversely, fruits and vegetables get zero government support. Enormous subsidies go to the highway system — but not trains — even though car accidents are the leading cause of death among children.

Transportation and food policies are public health issues.

“The health people (doctors) are not having success at the end of the disease pipeline. If they could look upstream, they’d have more success. Systemic disorders (like obesity, diabetes, mental illness) require systemic treatment.” Instead, public agencies, doctors and therapists are each chasing after a variety of symptoms that have the same underlying cause.” Routine exercise, like walking to shop and do errands, would reduce cars, pollution, obesity, isolation, and the list goes on.

“There’s enormous political pressure to ignore (environmental) science. We don’t convey our message well. Honestly, just as one third of Europe died of plague, I think one third of the planet will die from climate change. We don’t like science when it hits us in the pocket book. And yet the Federal Reserve is worried about how to pay for future healthcare costs.”

Quoting from Proverbs, Jackson intones, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

So imagine a tree-lined walk, preferably by a river, made safe by its popularity, where an old Atlanta woman can wheel her groceries in a push basket, occasionally taking breaks on amply-supplied benches, perhaps running into a friend for a chat, to boot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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