Healthy Communities, Healthy People: Dr. Richard Jackson Visits Oregon

1000 Friends of Oregon is proud to cosponsor a series of events throughout Oregon this June with Dr. Richard Jackson, a nationally renowned expert on the links between community design and public health. Dr. Jackson is a leading voice on the links between the shape of our communities, the ways we get around, and the prevalence of preventable health problems like obesity, asthma, and diabetes.

Jackson (right) discovered his passion in the topic almost by accident, as he told the San Francisco Chronicle in January.

In 1999, Jackson was well along his way in an impressive career. He had served 15 years in the California Department of Public Health, and been the state’s highest-ranking doctor. He had helped establish a pioneering statewide birth defects monitoring program, and became the director of National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC in Atlanta.

But as he recounted in the Chronicle, his work dramatically changed after an experience on a jammed suburban Atlanta arterial one hot day in summer 1999. He was rushing to a meeting, when he saw an elderly woman, weighed down with shopping bags, walking along the roadside with no bus in sight. It’s a sight that’s all too common throughout metropolitan America, but it hit Jackson especially hard that day.

The topic of the meeting Jackson was trying to reach: the major health threats of the 21st century, including well-known threats like bird flu, bioterrorism and AIDS. But Jackson’s chance observance along that highway led to an epiphany: “I realized that the major threat [to health] was how we had built America,” he told the Chronicle.

Since then, Jackson has been compiling evidence, writing books, and traveling the country, publicizing the links between community design and health, and sharing the many solutions that are within reach. Leaders, planners, and health officials are taking note. Dr. Jackson has received awards from Public Health Law Association, New Partners for Smart Growth, and the Breast Cancer Fund, and served on the boards of the American Institute of Architects and several other health and planning organizations. He is currently Professor and Chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.

Jackson’s influence reached new heights last fall when PBS aired a four-part documentary series, which he produced and hosted, called Designing Healthy Communities. The message of the series is stark: Poorly designed communities lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, cancer and depression, plus burgeoning health costs. For the first time in two centuries, children face shorter life expectancies than their parents due to unhealthy lifestyles.

However, there is light at the end of this tunnel.  Such outcomes are preventable, and they can be fixed. “Health happens in neighborhoods, not doctor’s offices,” Jackson says, and so it’s to our neighborhoods that we need to look to reverse the growing health epidemic our nation faces.

The documentary series explores how American communities got into such a bad position, and how we can get out. The four segments of the series focus on different aspects of the problem:

  • “Retrofitting Suburbia” address how auto-centric design has contributed to a growth in obesity and diabetes, and features how the city of Boulder, CO, has worked to improve its existing neighborhoods and streets to help people get more active.
  • “Rebuilding Places of the Heart” focuses on children’s health and the health benefits of reviving downtowns and walkable commercial districts.
  • “Social Policy in Concrete” looks at the unique health risks faced by low-income communities, with a focus on Detroit and Oakland, and what local leaders and activists are doing about it.
  • “Searching for Shangri-La” highlights existing communities that can be used as models for healthier design, from the small hamlet of Roseto, Pennsylvania, to Charleston, South Carolina, and New York City.

1000 Friends has collaborated with over a dozen statewide and local partners and allies to bring Jackson to Oregon in June, including statewide co-sponsors at the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association, Oregon Environmental Council, and the Oregon Transportation and Growth Management program.

Jackson will bring his message to the whole state, with talks in Eugene (June 19), Roseburg and Medford (June 20), Bend (June 21), and Portland (June 22), at local libraries and before civic organizations like the City Club of Central Oregon and the City Club of Portland. For more information on these events, please visit www.friends.org/DesigningHealthyCommunities.

When it comes to the obesity crisis, Oregon is doing slightly better than average, but we have a long way to go. All Oregonians deserve to have good health, and the shape of the communities we call home plays a big role in whether that’s possible for everyone.

Land use is a big part of the equation, as Jackson makes clear throughout his work. That's one of 1000 Friends' goals with our work for Cool Communities throughout Oregon—places where there are real transportation options for everyone, where the air is cleaner and people are healthier. Through smart land use planning, we believe that Oregon communities of all sizes can achieve this outcome for current and future residents.

For more details of Dr. Jackson’s visit and talks across Oregon, visit our Designing Healthy Communities Speaker Series page.

Watch a preview of Designing Healthy Communities, Part 1: "Retrofitting Suburbia" below: