Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Perspectives from Marin County, California

I spent last week in Marin and Sonoma Counties north of San Francisco. Whilst there I attended an event on April 18 called “Impact of the Built Environment on the Health of the Community,” produced by Marin County Health and Human Services. The Keynote speaker was Dr Richard Jackson, a national expert on the subject. From my perspective he was the highlight of the event, an excellent speaker who provided what I would regard as an insightful systemic analysis of current health issues and their underlying causal relations. A quote from his recent book is:

“The modern America of obesity, inactivity, depression, and loss of community has not ‘happened’ to us. We legislated, subsidized, and planned it this way.”

Here are some points I noted down during his talk:
  • The British justice system based on the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty is not adequate in the domain of pesticides and release of substances to the environment - the Napoleonic code on the other hand, seems more appropriate: it would recognise that release of substances new to 'nature' is going to cause problems, that not every factor can be tested for, and that the precautionary principle is thus a good strategy;
  • Today only 16% of US school children walk or bike to school (similar to that in UK);
  • In response to the obesity epidemic stomach stapling has increased exponentially, even among children;
  • The cost to US airlines in terms of extra fuel use in one year due to extra loads associated with the obesity epidemic is $1.1 billion;
  • A key systemic factor is the US Farm Bill and price support to corn, especially the billions of dollars spent on subsidising high fructose corn sugar which is now pervasive in foods.
Click here to see some Californian initiatives that are attempting to redress some of these issues. Melbourne already claims itself to be a liveable city but I think Melbourne planners and politicians could still learn a lot from the work of Jackson and colleagues. For sprawl, and its implications, I found a recent train trip from Flinders St (in central Melbourne) to Pakenham one of the most depressing trips I have ever made!

The event I attended brought together county health professionals with county-wide planners, traffic engineers and others involved with the built environment. The aim was to develop a dialogue on how changes to the built environment can help to provide more healthy opportunities for Marin County residents - it was a pity the venue was not more conducive of, and consistent with, the espoused purpose.

Marin County is supposedly one of the most affluent counties in the country - I was surprised by the poor public transport infrastructure. On the one freeway which runs the whole length of the county a special lane was reserved for hybrid cars and those with two or more people!

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