Building for better health: Public health professor hosts nationwide TV series

By Cynthia Lee
Originally published in UCLA Today

The old adage says we are what we eat, but perhaps it should also say we are what we build.

One of America’s leading voices calling for smarter urban planning and architecture to create healthy environments is making that case to the public in a four-part series that’s airing nationwide on public broadcasting stations.

In a four-part TV series airing on public broadcasting, Dr. Richard Jackson shows viewers the best and worst examples of urban planning and its effects on health. Dr. Richard Jackson, a UCLA professor of public health and urban planning as well as chair of environmental health sciences and a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, became convinced that the built environment deserved some of the blame for rising health risks after studying environmental health issues around pesticides, air pollution and cancer clusters.

The pediatrician and epidemiologist has already found a national audience for this concept among scientists, mayors, governors, urban planners, architects and public health specialists. Through his books, lectures and articles over the last three decades and as head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and as California’s chief state health officer, Jackson has long advocated designing, planning and building healthy communities. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects, and last year, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors awarded in the fields of health and medicine.

child with asthma

Once considered controversial, his premise that poorly thought-out design and planning of our cities, buildings and freeways have contributed to higher rates of asthma, cancer, obesity and diabetes has been borne out by studies of airborne particulates from cars and trucks, water contamination, lead poisoning, traffic congestion and the scarce access to fresh, healthy food in low-income urban communities.

"I’ve talked to a lot of ‘elites’ — science groups, mayors and groups of governors," said Jackson from his fifth floor office in the School of Public Health. "But I became convinced four or five years ago that we are not going to change the way we have built America unless we change the fundamental American consciousness and our cultural awareness of the need for physical activity and designing good places."

To do that, Jackson has been working on the television series, "Designing Healthy Communities," over the last four years. The series, funded by the Kresge Foundation, California Endowment, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, starts Tuesday, Jan. 31, on KLCS at 9 p.m. and will run Tuesdays, beginning Feb. 7, on KOCE at 10 p.m.

"We’ve built our environment so that people have to drive to go about their life’s work, and a large amount of material is being moved by diesel trucks rather than trains or other modes of transportation," Jackson said. "Water pollution is being driven by the fact that we’ve paved over much of the Earth. … And there’s a need for green environments, parks and sidewalks that welcome and encourage people to socialize and exercise."


In the new series, he looks at the link between urban sprawl and the national scourge of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, exacerbated by car dependency. To show viewers how cities can contribute to good health, he visits Boulder, Colo., "the healthiest city in the healthiest state," he noted, where bike lanes, walking paths and trails running alongside creeks crisscross the city and outlying areas. "You can essentially go about your life’s work — shopping, school, job — on a bicycle," he said. Residents love commuting by bike: they don’t need to join a gym, and, being outdoors, they socialize with their neighbors more, he said.

But Boulder is an anomaly. Over the last 70 years, planners have designed cities for the use of the automobile, not to fulfill human needs, Jackson said. Granted, cars and freeways allowed people to move farther away from urban centers, relieving stress on crowded cities. "But we’ve taken this intervention to an extreme," he said. "This methodology worked okay when the place wasn’t crowded, but it doesn’t work when there are now more cars in America than there are licensed drivers."

Building another lane onto the 405 and not adding public transit up through the middle of it, for example, is "nonsense," Jackson said. "It just means more people will drive. It’s totally inefficient in terms of the environment, resources, time, the human need for physical activity, socialization … and the ability to enjoy life rather than sit white-knuckled on the freeway."

richard jackson

In fact, Jackson noted, studies have shown that people who take public transit and walk weigh about seven pounds less than people who depend on the car for transportation. If everybody lost seven pounds or more, "your blood pressure goes down, and your risk of having a heart attack or stroke goes down. There are multiple health benefits."

But in many low-income neighborhoods in struggling industrial centers like Oakland, Calif., and Detroit, two cities where he took camera crews, people living in unhealthy environments are hobbled by obesity and other diseases. In one episode, Jackson talks with a morbidly obese grandmother trying to raise seven grandchildren, all of whom have asthma because they live near the Port of Oakland.

But there is also a glimmer of hope. In Detroit, a city in industrial decay and urban ruin, Jackson found a new breed of creative young newcomers who are working to transform areas of the city with urban agriculture and green spaces.

Jackson also takes viewers to what once was the largest shopping mall west of the Mississippi, the Cinderella City Mall in Englewood in the Denver area. Once an enclosed shopping haven encompassing 1.35 million square feet, the mall fell on hard times by 1995 and sat abandoned by most of its tenants. Today, it’s been retrofitted into a lively, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community that includes shops, apartments, offices, entertainment, and civic and open space elements, including an area that boasts fountains in the summer and an ice-skating rink in winter.

"I’ve been criticized by people who have told me, ‘You just have this 100-year-old vision of America," said Jackson, who has high praise for walkable cities in the South like Charleston and Savannah.

"But I believe that if you build places that work well for children, where they can have increasing autonomy, safe places to walk and bike, and reasonable access to good, healthy food, then you’ve also created a good place for everybody. It’s also a good place for older folks who no longer drive, who need to socialize and be around other people, and need  access to healthy food."

To learn more about the series and see video promos, go here. This page lists the public broadcasting stations and times when the series will be shown. 

Episode 1: Retrofitting Suburbia – (preview) from MPC on Vimeo.