As longtime advocates for better health care, we have seen firsthand how community design affects the health and quality of life of Sacramento’s residents. While diseases can be caused by many factors, we know that our built environment, our auto-centered transportation system and its consequent pollution are big contributors to the skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart and lung disease, asthma, and other chronic health conditions.
Until now, neighborhood design in the greater Sacramento region has mainly promoted driving. This type of community design makes walking, bicycling, and using public transit less appealing and more dangerous, which in turn makes it more difficult to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives. Hundreds of thousands of Sacramento residents face heart disease and diabetes, and throughout California, more than 60% of adults are overweight or obese, a condition that strongly predisposes them to heart attacks and diabetes. In addition, the almost exclusive use of the auto for transportation increases levels of unhealthy smog and soot in the air. This type of pollution is tightly linked to the development of asthma. In the greater Sacramento region, over 165,000 people are living with this disease, including approximately 40,000 children. We can do better, and we have an opportunity this week to chart a brighter future for our communities, one that includes more healthy options for getting around such as safe biking, walking and public transit.
The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is poised to adopt a transformative plan for our region. This plan, called a Sustainable Communities Strategy, will guide where new development occurs and how we invest in our transportation system. We are heartened by the direction that the plan takes; it envisions a change in the development patterns of the past, away from sprawl and toward healthy growth where residents will have more safe transportation choices. The SACOG plan would increase bike lanes in the region by 77 percent, nearly double transit service and decrease traffic congestion pollution while bringing housing, jobs and transit closer together in future growth patterns.
While there is room for improvement in this Sustainable Communities Strategy, it is a giant step forward for the greater Sacramento area. SACOG’s staff has gone the extra mile to work with the community in developing the plan, holding public workshops and coordinating with local jurisdictions. With less funding than they’ve had in the past, they have succeeded in “doing more with less.”
A visionary plan like this Sustainable Communities Strategy can make a big difference in reducing chronic disease. Research has demonstrated that mixed-use communities designed around public transit, walking and cycling can reduce lung and heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions, saving billions in medical and health care costs for businesses and individuals in California each year.
As health leaders, we stand behind this plan as an essential element in moving us towards a healthier future. But to see the benefits of it come to fruition, we need to be sure that it is implemented well. It is critical that our local leaders ensure that new development is focused in the areas that are well served by transit and identified in the plan as priorities, so that residents who want to walk, bike, or ride the bus or light rail will have neighborhoods where that is possible. Approving new developments on the outskirts of town that are not part of the Sustainable Communities Strategy will only negate the gains we make from adding new sidewalks, bike paths, and improved transit service.
We encourage the SACOG Board to adopt the Sustainable Communities Strategy today and to implement the plan as it is set forth. Sacramento has an opportunity to make the air cleaner and build a healthier future. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.