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Pressroom: Impact of "built environment" on public health


Warning: Your neighborhood may be hazardous to your health

September 16, 2011

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Research has shown that the typical, auto-oriented suburban development is contributing to obesity, asthma, heart disease, diabetes and depression.

“The point is the environment you live in is the most significant factor in determining what your overall health will be,” said Matt Burris, senior associate with Raimi and Associates in Riverside.

 The impact of the so-called “built environment” – streets, highways, homes, businesses and schools – on public health is a relatively new field that is gaining traction among government agencies, insurance companies and health advocacy groups, who are interested in changing how communities are built.

“Historically people walked everywhere and bicycling was common,” said Christopher Gray, senior associate for Fehr & Peers in Riverside.  “People don’t do that anymore partially because it’s not safe. “

Burris and Gray will examine how development patterns and urban form affect personal activity, healthy food availability, air quality, access to health facilities and safety in “Public Health and the Built Environment” sponsored by UCR Extension beginning Sept. 22.

The hybrid class, which will combine three days of in-class instruction with online coursework, is an elective for UCR Extension’s Certificate in Sustainable Development and Green Design.

Gray described a public health–oriented community would include streets that limit car traffic and promote walking and bicycling. A mix of residential and commercial uses would offer people the opportunity to live, work and shop in their own neighborhoods.

“It all comes down to choices,” Gray said. “We’re not saying people should never drive cars but, if they choose to walk, we want them to be able to do it.”

Local governments are addressing the issue by adding optional Health Elements to their General Plans, which guide future development.  Burris’s company prepared the Health Element of the Riverside County General Plan and both he and Gray are working on a Health Element for the city of Coachella.

Burris said the elements look at a variety of characteristics pertaining to safety, walkability, accessibility of healthy food, air pollution and accessibility to health care and then make recommendations for ways to improve the public health of the community.

For further information about the class and the Certificate in Sustainable Development and Green Design go to www.extension.ucr.edu, email sciences@ucx.ucr.edu or call (951) 827-5804.

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