Planners, builders have bigger impact on health than some might expect

Roger Showley • U-T

Does San Diego deserve the moniker “Fat Diego”? The comments from a panel of experts sure point that way. We drive too much, walk too little, crave too much junk food. And our neighborhoods make us do it.

A developer, research director and walkability advocate laid out how far San Diego County and its many sunny neighborhoods have to go to equal cold-climate places like Minneapolis in living better.

 

At the monthly forum Thursday sponsored by the Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 good-planning group, highlights included:

  • While San Diego has places like Mission Bay to bike, speakers at Thursday’s forum said the area needs fewer multilane streets that offer no buffer from traffic.
  • Alcohol sales help stores afford to stock produce
  • San Diego’s super-wide streets, such as Friars Road, speed traffic but discourage walking.
  • Some of San Diego’s population struggles with obesity, particularly in neighborhoods lacking groceries with fresh fruits and vegetables. The answer? Let neighborhood grocers sell beer and wine.
  • Parks typically include expansive ball fields, but it’s actually parks with running and walking tracks that serve the public better in terms of promoting exercise.

The session was moderated by Mary Lydon, executive director of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute, which has launched a new initiative, “Building Healthy Places.”

In a short video, Lydon highlighted the comments of University of California Los Angeles expert Richard Jackson on the topic: “Builders, urban planners, architects and transportation leaders are health professionals. They don’t think of themselves as white-coat folks, but they have more impact on the health of Americans than people sitting in hospitals waiting for people to come through the door.”

Andy Hamilton, an air quality expert and founder of Walk San Diego, which is merging with the group Move San Diego, used Friars Road in Mission Valley as an example of San Diego’s emphasis on cars at the expense of biking, busing and walking.

“You create nine lanes to cross the street,” Hamilton said. “There’s no buffer between bikes and traffic. There’s no front accessto the land uses, even if you walk or bike.”

On the question of food choices, Hamilton said Houston has relaxed its code restrictions to allow beer and wine sales in neighborhood groceries as a way to help owners succeed financially and thus be able to afford to stock fresh fruits and vegetables.

Stephen Haase, senior vice president of the Baldwin & Sons development company in Otay Ranch and a member of the San Diego city Planning Commission, chimed in: “Some of the most heated debates in the community and among community members is over this issue about alcoholic sales at grocery stores. It’s a challenge we have to face in order to solve other problems.”

James Sallis, director of research at UC San Diego’s Active Living Research, cited researchthat people in parks with baseball fields sit more than they play, but in those with a running track, active users far outnumber the sitters.

“It’s not magic and it’s not a pill,” he said of the design solutions. “People really don’t understand or acknowledge that activity is one of the driving forces in obesity.”

He said as a bike enthusiast, he is “petrified” to bike anywhere outside Mission Bay because of the danger from passing motorists. The result is that only 1 percent of San Diegans’ trips are by bike, whereas in the cold of Minneapolis, bike use is four times greater.

“That’s just a big wake-up call to me to show, again, how far behind we are,” Sallis said.

roger.showley@utsandiego.com[space]

Neighborhood parks often feature baseball fields, such as this one in Del Mar, but research shows more activity takes place at parks with running tracks or walking trails. CHARLIE NEUMAN • U-T FILE[space]