Dr. Jackson's prescription: Make cities walkable again

Pediatrician Richard Jackson will deliver the keynote speech Wednesday at 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Awards

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Pediatrician Richard Jackson's aha! moment came one day when he was the director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in 1999. He was overseeing hundreds of researchers concerned with issues that ranged from molecular threats, microbes and toxins to global climate change and the disappearing ozone layer.

"I was driving to downtown Atlanta and had an insight as I passed an elderly woman struggling along a street without sidewalks, carrying shopping bags," he said.

Back at the office, he talked to his colleagues about the hostile place design the woman had to deal with. "They said, 'You're not an urban planner,' " he said.

For the past 12 years, Dr. Jackson has met a lot of urban planners and is speaking the language of the most progressive among them, the so-called New Urbanism, which is really the old urbanism -- a return to walkable realms that are designed and built for the human body, not the human body in a car.

He will deliver the keynote speech Wednesday evening at 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania's annual Commonwealth Awards, which will honor the life and work of developer and 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania's board chairman Mark Schneider, who died this summer.

10,000 Friends is a smart-growth policy nonprofit.

The event, in Lawrence Hall at Point Park University, starts at 5 p.m. Tickets are $100 and can be ordered by calling Grant Ervin at 412-471-3727, ext.16 or email gervin@10000friends.org.

Dr. Jackson chairs the Environmental Health Sciences Department at UCLA and is a professor in its Institute of the Environment, Sustainability and Urban Planning. He is the host of public television's "Designing Healthy Communities."

He served 15 years at the Centers for Disease Control, where he established the National Asthma Epidemiology and Control Program and advocated for childhood lead poisoning prevention.

"I've heard him speak twice, both at national conferences," said Jack Machek, president and CEO of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania. "It's cool to land him here. It opens the door for a whole new host of potential allies and partners for our work.

"People just accept that we're going to have a 45-minute commute to work and cart the kids around in a minivan and drive if we want a quart of milk, but there are consequences to living life that way, and it doesn't have to be that way. We do have choices and alternatives."

Mr. Ervin, the regional director for 10,000 Friends, said the organization hopes to bring Dr. Jackson back for a town hall meeting and discussions with elected officials.

Dr. Jackson said he starts his lectures at UCLA by asking students to name the attributes of a healthy place. "They say clean air, clean water, trees, places you can walk. Those are the same attributes of a sustainable place.

"What was good for people's health was how we built communities in 1920," he said. "We had parks surrounded by civic buildings, churches, retail, trolleys and schools. [General Motors] bought up the trolleys and threw them into the ocean. But there's a premium to living in places like that now."

Dr. Jackson's message is health-driven, but he said it touches on every category in which public policy comes into play.

"Transportation policy is health policy," he said. "Agriculture policy is health policy. Education policy is health policy. Business, housing, everything is health policy.

"In the beginning people thought I was a crackpot. But over time they say, 'That's just common sense.' "

Over much of the 20th century, good sense eluded a lot of designers of streets, highways and the places they did or didn't connect to.

"Our buildings, our roadways, our highways, transportation policy has been made on the basis of short-term convenience and short-term return on investment," he said. "We reward the things that undermine us most" -- having minimum requirements for parking when we build buildings, making elevators more convenient than steps, creating environments to and from which people have no choice but to drive.

"If you're sitting in a car in Los Angeles, your stress goes up," he said. "We have been able to show that."

Walkable design of cities and towns is destined to drive down the costs of health care and turn back the fearsome rise in obesity and diabetes, he said.

"The health community actually really gets this now," he said. "The National Institutes of Health is now funding studies on neighborhood design.

"Virtually every county health department in California now has someone on staff focused on planning, going to planning commission hearings, asking, 'Where's the crosswalk? Where's the access to parks?'

"In Atlanta, there were parks you couldn't walk to. I thought, 'What do you mean a kid can't ride his bike to the park?' You had to drive."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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