Riverside Hopes New Policies Will Help Curb Sprawl, Obesity

by Lauren McSherry, California Healthline Regional Correspondent

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RIVERSIDE – Two seemingly disparate government entities in Riverside County have teamed up to address the link between urban sprawl and high rates of obesity and diabetes.

"We started realizing if you look at how Riverside County is built, in all of the new cities there is almost nowhere to walk," said Michael Osur, deputy director for the county Department of Public Health. "This was a key part of why people are so unhealthy."

The public health department and the planning department joined forces to develop a large-scale approach that will guide future development in the county. The new policies set the stage for communities that will be walkable and bikeable with convenient access to nutritious food. The county recently adopted a framework for "healthy communities" as an amendment to its General Plan, a document that guides the county's long-term plan for growth.

"This lays the foundation and vision for how our communities are going to be developed and designed with an eye on health," said Kristi Lovelady, principal planner for the planning department. "It's very innovative. Some cities have gone down this path. For a county to go forward with it is very groundbreaking."

Officials believe Riverside County is the first county in the state to adopt this type of amendment.

More Growth, Poorer Health

The county, the fourth most populous in the state, is ranked near the bottom of the 58 California counties for having physical environments that are conducive to good health, according to the health department. A study by the not-for-profit Smart Growth America ranked the Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area No. 1 in the nation for sprawl.

Up until the economic recession, Riverside County had been one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and for the last 10 years had been the fastest-growing county in California, Osur said. In recent years, the county has added a number of new cities, including Wildomar and Menifee, and if current projections hold true, the county population will reach 4.7 million by 2050, making it the second-most populous county in the state.

Much of the county's development has been occurring in unincorporated areas, due to the county's vast expanse of vacant land. Driven by demand for affordable housing by commuters and retirees in neighboring counties, these unincorporated areas have been at the forefront of growth in the county. Once a critical mass has been reached, cities have formed in these areas.

Many of the new cities in the county have lacked distinct downtowns. Housing developments fragmented by cul-de-sacs often only are within driving distance of shopping areas. Public transportation also has lagged behind.

Planning and public health department officials hope they can move the county in a new direction. Officials say they want to see developments with more recreational opportunities; cul-de-sacs that are connected by walking trails; multimode transportation networks; safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists; and housing developments that are close to employers, schools, health care facilities and markets that sell fresh food. Now, developers will need to take into account the guidelines for "healthy communities" that are outlined in the General Plan.

"It's prevention on the grandest scale," Osur said. "You can totally change the health of a county, if you change how the communities are built."

An Emerging Trend

Since the late 1990s, researchers have been studying the link between the man-made environment and chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. It wasn't until the late 1990s that physicians started seeing children with Type 2 diabetes, a disease that until recently was called adult onset diabetes. It took years of data collection before researchers could show that these were distinct trends.

Now, data from CDC indicate that not only is the number of people with obesity, diabetes and heart disease growing, but the trends appear to be accelerating.

"It's taken this long for us to collect enough data to understand how bad this trend is," said Ryan Snyder, president of Ryan Snyder Associates, a transportation planning firm, and a lecturer at UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. "It's an epidemic of physical inactivity."

A number of studies have shown the connection between urban development and public health.

One study, by Jim Sallis, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, showed that adults who lived in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods had lower weights and were more likely to get 35 to 50 minutes more physical activity per week than those in low-walkable, single-use neighborhoods.

"Single-use development that separates homes, shops, and workplaces essentially takes away most people's ability to choose to walk and bike for transportation," Sallis said in an e-mail. "Thus, development and transportation decisions affect health in profound ways."

According to walkscore.com, a website that rates neighborhood walkability and quality of life, the average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs seven pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.

Snyder pointed to a number of older cities in the Inland Empire that could serve as models for new walkable communities: Redlands, downtown Riverside, downtown Palm Springs and the historic section of downtown Coachella.

In a region that's nearly the size of Maine, those communities represent only a fraction of total urban and suburban space.

"The Inland Empire does not have many walkable neighborhoods," Snyder said. "It's primarily built with the suburban cul-de-sac street form with separated land uses. It just doesn't lend itself toward walking or bicycling."

With that in mind, the public health department has hired a planner to help cities in the county work toward policies similar to the ones outlined in the county's General Plan.

Some of the guidelines for developing "healthy communities" include focusing development along major transit corridors, encouraging mixed-use development and designing streetscapes that are pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

"It's more than just trails and parks. It's actually getting people out and moving and walking," Lovelady said, referring to the idea that if communities are designed for pedestrians and cyclists, rather than cars, people will be more inclined to get outside and exercise.

These ideas are rooted in two civic design movements, known as New Urbanism and Neotraditionalism, which rekindled enthusiasm for compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities and access to alternative transportation. These principles were being applied in the late 1800s in California, but with the rise of industrialization in the 20th century, cities began separating land uses because people didn't want to live near dirty factories, Snyder said. As time has gone by, cities also have become more car-oriented.

"That creates a situation that's not walkable because things are spread apart, and we've gone farther and farther in that direction," Snyder said.

Both Snyder and Sallis commended the county for addressing the intersection of public health and planning. County officials said they see their work leading toward a positive direction.

"What's groundbreaking is that you have two very distinct and different agencies working collaboratively with a common interest," Lovelady said. "We've set the bookends for some very creative, innovative design."


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