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Richmond plans for a healthier future

on June 7, 2011

About 450 pages into Richmond’s draft General Plan, readers are presented with a vision for the community eighteen years from now.  It presents a Richmond with pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined streets in neighborhoods chock full of farmer’s markets, full-service grocery stores and community gardens.  The city’s parks are safe, well kept, full of programs and regularly used by residents.  Air and water quality has improved and rates of asthma, diabetes and other conditions linked to poor physical and environmental health are on the decline.  “Richmond’s neighborhood schools are thriving centers that educate children and parents about healthy eating,” the document reads, and describes children leaving the local school system to attend college in increasing numbers and find jobs in a Richmond that has ample employment opportunities.

Access to healthcare services is one area that needs improvement, according to the new general plan. Steven Lawrence (left) went to a mobile health clinic run by Contra Costa County Health Services feeling disoriented. Nurse Practitioner Pat Hill (center) and Registered Nurse Alvin Silva (right), work to find a treatment program for him. (Photo by Anne Brice)

This vision is the goal of a new health element being added to the city’s general plan.  Lofty and ambitious, it borders on utopian.  And that’s the point, says Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.  “We think of this as really a visionary blueprint for the city,” she said.  “This city came out of an industrial age and Richmond is really moving forward in a pretty profound and swift way.”

In July the city will approve a new general plan, a huge policy document that will shape the future of the city for the next couple decades. The process of updating it has been going on for nearly five years.

The proposed health and wellness section of the general plan takes aim at making Richmond healthier through eleven vectors.  It focuses on improving access to parks, healthy food, medical services, and job opportunities; improving neighborhood safety, the quality of public housing, environmental quality and public transit; supporting green and sustainable development; and building neighborhoods that include necessary goods and services within walking distance. To that end, 48 pages of suggested policies are laid out in the document that mandate, encourage or allow the city to take action over the 20-year life of the general plan.

California law requires that cities have an updated general plan that addresses urban design, traffic, parks, conservation and other issues that relate to the built environment. But Richmond decided early in the process to add a community health and wellness element that will also address the socio-economic conditions that largely account for health disparities among low-income and minority communities.

“The way we structure communities, and the way we build our neighborhoods and cities have major implications for public health,” said Daniel Iacofano, a principal with Berkeley-based MIG, Inc., an urban planning firm the city hired to draft the element.

The project the health element of the new plan was funded by a $255,000 grant from the California Endowment.  Richmond will be the first city in California to include a standalone health-focused chapter in their plan.

That the built environment—everything from the layout of roads and railroad tracks, land use, zoning, development, industrial facilities, housing and parks—impacts public health is not a new concept.  In fact, Iacofano says that urban planning actually started as a public health project.  “The original zoning code proffered in New York City at the beginning of the last century was offered as a reaction to dirt, stench, filth, garbage piling up in the streets,” he said, “and recognizing that tenements in the city were not fit for human life and unscrupulous landlords were taking advantage of immigrants.”

The new health plan lays out ways to get Richmond residents access to recreation programs to improve physical fitness and combat stark diabetes and heart disease rates facing the city. Here, a Zumba lesson at a recent nutrition forum. (Photo by Kornelia Trytko)

Since then, Iacofano said, public health and urban planning developed as separate fields, with city planners generally focusing on aesthetic amenities such as providing parks, maximizing the flow of traffic and regulating zoning.  But in recent years, the two fields have started paying more attention to each other. “There’s a literature and a research body of knowledge growing on the subject,” he said.  “By rethinking the design of cities and neighborhoods we can really impact public health in a positive way.”

“To actually mainline it into city policy, that’s the new part,” Iacofano said.

“I think it’s entirely fitting that Richmond would take a leadership role in this kind of thinking,” said Richmond City Councilmember Jeff Ritterman.  He said that the city’s legacy of heavy industry and entrenched poverty have left some communities with increased rates of asthma, diabetes, obesity, mental health problems and violence.

The new general plan takes a broad view of health. “Health is not just the physical conditions of human beings,” Iacofano said. “It has to do with employment, quality education, safe environment, parks and recreation and having a useable transportation system.”

To create the health element for the city’s general plan, MIG developed a body of research that mapped various barriers to health in the city like a lack of access to full-services grocery stores with fresh produce, or safe crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists, and the presence areas with high poverty and crime rates.  Iacofano says this new research will give city leaders information to make land use and development decisions to improve health.  “If you have research that says that if you put this use next to this use, then you know it’s going to get this negative effect on public health, safety and welfare,” Iacafano said. He raised the example of research that connects higher numbers of liquor stores with increased rates of alcoholism.

In their research, MIG found the city has a healthy number of parks, but their distribution among neighborhoods, and the quality of parks in the cities denser areas, is a barrier to widespread use. “It’s not the amount but the condition of the parks and the accessibility to get to those parks that makes a difference in how they are used and who uses them,” Iacofano said.

The plan is ambitious in its recommendations, but the goal of the general plan is to give a broad view to guide the city’s policies over decades. Many of the policy goals laid out in the health section of the general plan are focused on infrastructure, and will require the city to rethink common approaches to city planning—and also to find sources of funding for development projects.

Richmond's industrial history has left a legacy of poor air and water quality as well as markedly higher rates of asthma in Richmond's children.

“Most of the easy ones have been done,” said Ritterman.  As an example, he cites the city’s ban on smoking inside multi-unit housing complexes.

One of the driving ideas in the document, Ritterman says, is the “complete streets” model.  “Before, we only thought about how to get a car as fast as possible from point A to B,” he said.  “Complete streets means doing traffic calming measures like lowering speed limits and putting in bike lanes and better crossings for walking.”  These kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle changes have proven effective in lots of communities to encourage people to walk and bike, a boon to overall health, Ritterman said.

Ritterman said the city government has been focused on health consequences of their decision-making efforts in recent years, but shoring it up in city code is important.  “We now can see that land use decisions are health decisions, employment has health consequences,” he said. “A whole variety of decisions on policing end up being health decisions, economic decisions all have health implications.”

In mid-July, the city will vote on the new general plan.

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