The world we are giving our children and grandchildren is in critical condition, wracked by a terrible combination of social, environmental, and economic catastrophes. We must no longer deal with these ongoing calamities in an atomized, piecemeal way as we did during the last century, because, as we are now beginning to recognize, they are in fact symptoms of a systemic disease, a malady resulting from how we use our wealth to create the world we inhabit.
How we have built and how we live in the places where we spend almost all of our time is at the core of the critical population illness we must confront. To remedy this life-endangering condition, we must creatively build and rebuild our living environments.
Solving environmental threats—ever-mounting species extinctions tantamount to the devastation an asteroid collision would cause, human-induced elevated water in the atmosphere and attendant powerful storms, a 2-meter rise in sea level, resource depletion, farmland disappearance, rising energy costs, oil-well and nuclear catastrophes—we must build cities and urban places that occupy far less space, consume negligible external energy, use only local materials, and bring people comfortably closer to each other and employment.
To curb economic threats—lost jobs that will never return, immense disparities of wealth, looted banks, and fragile co-insurance networks—we need to develop meaningful family-supporting work where people reside that is far less dependent on foreign energy sources. There is no escaping the need for solar power. Ask the Japanese, who are trying to cope with the disaster at the Fukushima power plant.
To deal with social and health threats—high fuel prices and costly wasted time, injuries and deaths from car-dependency—we need to fundamentally change our transportation. Rail is 20 times safer than cars and far more energy efficient. We cannot improve the quality of the air we breathe and thereby prevent pollution-caused diseases unless we burn less fuel and spend much less time in cars. Buildings use bricks, steel, wood, and concrete, and consume close to one third of all the energy we have. And in terms of health, we cannot turn around the obesity and diabetes epidemics unless we stop eating so much sugar and fat, and otherwise drastically improve our diet, preferably with locally grown food. Americans, especially our children, are desperately unfit: 75 percent cannot pass a simple fitness test. This grim statistic will not improve if we forever sit in cars or stand on escalators to go about our lives. We need to walk and bike at least an hour a day. And we cannot do any of this unless we redesign America for what we want and need.
Finally, depression is pervasive in our nation. The most–prescribed medicines are antidepressants. To treat mild to moderate depression, we all need more quality human interactions, exercise, and contact with nature. Anonymity and bleakness will continue to pollute most of America’s built landscapes unless we make places that encourage people to leave their home theaters and come together in places of community, not shopping malls and franchise restaurants.
Changing the built environment—making it healthy, energy efficient, and job creating—is not something merely pleasant, nor is it an aesthetic wish. It is the code blue response to a life-endangering crisis. This is what America does best: When faced with a terrible challenge, even three simultaneous challenges, Americans’ resolve and ingenuity surmount the threats. The United States did not win World War II by ignoring Pearl Harbor. We are at a Pearl Harbor moment.
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Opinion editor’s note
Richard Jackson will speak about the design of healthy communities at 3 p.m. on May 18 in Spanos Theater at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
Most people focus on personal choices when addressing obesity and other chronic health conditions, but rarely do they consider the built environment as a factor. However, many elected officials, public health professionals, architects, city and county planners, agricultural professionals, and transportation officials now realize the design of communities has serious health consequences.
Jackson is chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health and has held many appointed positions for public policy. He gained national prominence while working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by analyzing the environmental impacts on health related to urban design, architecture, and mobility. He is now researching how farm, education, housing, and transportation policies affect health.
Jackson recently served on the board of directors of the American Institute of Architects and has chaired the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health. The Public Broadcasting System will soon air his three-part program, Designing Healthy Communities, coincident with the release of a companion book.