Building for Health: Improving our cities, homes, and lives

How does where we live impact our health?  It’s a big and complex question, but Richard Jackson, MD, MPH is leading the way towards answers–and interventions.

Jackson is a longtime leading figure in public health. Trained in pediatrics at UCSF and public health at UC Berkeley, he is currently Professor and Chairman of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA’s School of Public Health. Prior to that he has been California’s State Health Officer and Director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health. He is a founding CHE partner who has participated in many of CHE’s conference calls, meetings, and initiatives.

Over the past decade much of Jackson’s focus has been on the “built environment”–our homes, cities, streets, institutions–affect our health. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects and has written and spoken extensively in this arena. He has both recent books and a new television series titled “Designing Healthy Communities”, which premieres on PBS in February and is available on DVD.  Episodes in the 4-part series include “Retrofitting Suburbia”, “Rebuilding Places of the Heart,” “Social Policy in Concrete,”  and “Searching for Shangri-La.” Such titles might lead one to suspect Dr. Jackson is a man with his head in the clouds, but he remains a pragmatist who is able to retain lofty goals in terms of healthy futures.


You trained as a clinician; how did you evolve into a public health leader?

For the first years of my career I was a traditional pediatrician, and then spent a couple more decades in public health, mostly doing environmental health, especially impacts on children’s health, for example from pesticides or air pollutants.  Over time, I became convinced that we’re not going to deal with air and water pollution as long as we keep paving over ever more landscape and driving everywhere, nor will we deal with climate change unless we figure out how to better build our homes, communities, transportation systems and so forth.  So I kept coming back to what we now call the “built environment” and that led to my books and this new television series.

Why a television presentation of these complex issues?

I became increasingly aware that though I was regularly talking to clinicians, scientists, and other professionals, the general public was not hearing these messages, particularly poorer people who bear the brunt of the preventable diseases in our society.  We need to make this information accessible to “the 99%,” if you will, and this led to the new public broadcasting series, with the companion book.  And in that book I decided to become a bit more personal, to try to better engage the average person.

For a transcript of the full interview by Steve Heilig click here.