Public Comment

Commentary: A Healthy Perspective on Downtown Development

By Sweena Aulakh
Tuesday May 01, 2007

Largely absent from the on-going debate surrounding high density development in downtown Berkeley is a discussion on its health effects. As estimated by the Association of Bay Area Governments there will be an expected 4,200 additional residents in Berkeley by 2015. In determining possible solutions to the increased housing demand, Berkeley's Planning Department and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) must take into account the growing body of evidence which supports dense development as a means to improve health and well-being. 

The overweight and obesity epidemic continues to skyrocket in California; so do the number of people with chronic conditions associated with overweight and obesity such as heart disease, type II diabetes, certain cancers (e.g. breast, colon), osteoarthritis, and respiratory conditions. An estimated 200,000 annual deaths in the United States can be attributed to physical inactivity. What health professionals are coming to realize is that merely advising people to go to the gym and get the Surgeon General's recommended 30-60 minutes of physical activity per day is just not working. Instead, we now know that we need to change our built environment so that activity becomes a natural part of our daily lives. It truly is simple. More time in a car means a higher probability of obesity; more walking or biking means a lower probability of obesity; and, thus, higher density with more walkable and bikable destinations means a lower probability of obesity. 

Imagine a downtown Berkeley vibrant with activity. Residents are walking to the farmer's market, dashing to the next BART train, cycling to work, or strolling as they window shop. The noticeable difference in this future Berkeley and the one of today is the absence of vehicular traffic. Sound, high density planning can attract businesses and employers without an increase in traffic. By creating housing in proximity to attractive destinations, high density planning creates walkable communities and invites residents to leave their cars behind. In fact, we know from recent surveys done by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that people who live within half a mile of transit use transit extensively and are more likely to walk and bike than residents living greater than half a mile from transit. 

A walkable community is one where residents can live, work, learn, and play. Such a community allows residents to easily access goods and services within a safe walk, thereby increasing physical activity and reducing their dependence on cars. This type of development and planning will significantly benefit our aging population. Recent studies have found that when elders in high density neighborhoods are able to walk to clusters of destinations such as the post office or grocery store, overweight and social isolation are reduced. High density development in downtown Berkeley will provide such an opportunity for the rapid aging of Berkeley's population. According to the California Commission on Aging, the state's population age 65 or older is expected to double in 25 years and triple in 50 years. By 2050, the median forecast projects nearly 11 million seniors in the state. When planning for the increased number of residents, it would be wise for DAPAC to consider the demographics of our community in the coming years. 

Lastly, no discussion on planning and health can overlook the impact of these decisions on our city's young people. Transportation pollutants are one of the largest contributors to poor air quality. Children are more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution, with asthma being the most prevalent chronic disease among children in California (American Lung Association). In fact, asthma rates among children under age four more than doubled in the last twenty years and is the number one cause of school absenteeism among school-aged children. Smog and soot have been identified as key factors that trigger asthma attacks with fewer vehicular emissions playing an obvious role. Effective downtown planning can benefit children by reducing air pollution but also offering families pedestrian-friendly destinations that will increase the entire family's access to opportunities for physical activity. 

It is thrilling to see the city faced with an incredible opportunity to benefit the health of its current and future residents. Health professionals cannot do it alone. The city will most certainly be writing a prescription for health by creating a walkable and livable downtown. Let us begin to include health into the downtown planning process. It is time we consider the long-term impacts of our decisions on our city's most vulnerable populations in designing a community where health and well-being are cherished. 


Sweena Aulakh is a nursing student at UC San Francisco.