Design healthiness into our communities, expert advocates

It was considered a breech of neighborhood decorum — a mom walking her daughter to school.

“The kids were getting into a car and riding four blocks to the school,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, a professor at UCLA’s school of public health.

Fellow students would sometimes taunt the student: What’s the matter? Don’t you have a car?”

Jackson knows the story well. The mom in his story is his sister, the daughter is his niece.

Jackson, who has spent his life studying how to make communities more inviting places, will speak at a health summit, “At The Edge of Amazing,” Friday at Tulalip. His career includes work as a pediatrician, at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as the host for PBS television series,“Designing Healthy Communities,” which examined how health can be affected by the neighborhood and environment people live in.

Jackson said if he could deliver one message to families and communities it would be: If at all possible, kids need to walk or bike to school.

It can be difficult, he said. Schools are often built on the edge of communities. There’s not always sidewalks for kids to use to bike or walk to school.

Fellow physicians often tell him that they feel as if they’re “sitting at the end of a disease pipeline,” expecting that the doctor can fix in 20 minutes the problems that result from poor diets, not enough physical activity and not enough socializing, Jackson said.

Communities have been built in ways that impede a sense of social connectedness, he said. High-speed, four-lane roads are built through neighborhoods, leaving people feeling isolated and without central gathering places.

Mild to moderate depression is one of the nation’s most common health problems, he said.

“The best treatment is physical activity and socializing with people you care about,” Jackson said. “In older societies, they had church suppers and barn raisings. We knew how to get people through tough times.”

The Urban Land Institute has produced a list of characteristics found in vibrant communities. They include providing sidewalks and developing biking paths and pedestrian-friendly environments; providing space for play and recreation that can be used by all ages; accommodating grocery stores and farmers markets; supporting community gardens; adding drinking fountains; minimizing noise pollution; and increasing access to green space.

Jackson said cities are finding that both young adults and retirees who are considering staying in a city or moving to the area often like the sense of community included in these attributes.

When speaking recently in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he suggested that they consider bringing a good quality cooking school to the downtown area.

“That’s often one of the things that bring people in,” he said. “Retirees want good medical care and to be with their loved ones, but they want good restaurants and bike routes.”

A recent study in Florida found that the long-term health benefits from constructing trails offset the cost of building them, he said.

“It’s wrong when we spend money fixing potholes when they spend nothing on sidewalks,” he said.

About a third of adults doesn’t drive because they don’t have the money for cars, are disabled, or are elderly, Jackson said. “The need for bike and pedestrian amenities should be on a par with roads.”

Los Angeles is one of the latest examples of cities that are finding ways to make the urban landscape more walkable and sociable, he said. Some 51 miles of land along the Los Angeles River is being converted to greenspace and bike paths.

The steps to making communities more vibrant can only occur when both the public and government leadership are equally committed to the effort. “The community has to be demanding it,” he said.

Jackson said he had one other recommendation for families, and this one as a father. He urged them to spend more time with their kids, even as he acknowledged that he had to struggle to find the time to spend with his own three sons.

“Sitting in a room when you’re both on electronics isn’t enough,” he said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

Courtesy photo Public health specialist Dr. Richard Jackson, seen on a trip to Alaska, says physical activity is the best treatment for the mild to moderate depression common in society.

Courtesy photo Public health specialist Dr. Richard Jackson, seen on a trip to Alaska, says physical activity is the best treatment for the mild to moderate depression common in society.

Chris Alexakisparks