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February 14, 2012

Walking the Walk on Healthy Communities

Transportation
Castro St. Streetscape, Mountain View, CA. Photo by Loma Prieta Chapter Sustainable Land Use Committee

In the last few weeks, the New York Times has blogged about how the way we design our communities & our transportation systems impacts public heath—one piece called out how car-dependence is robbing kids of their ability to develop autonomy, and the other pointed out the health impacts from transportation systems that are designed to give people close to zero opportunity for physical activity in everyday life. 

Last week, we blogged about how public health collides with our car-dependent transportation system in “Sick of Driving,” and PBS is currently airing a series on the topic called “Designing Healthy Communities.”  

It seems like no matter where you turn, someone is talking about transportation and health.  The work going on in the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta Chapter, composed of the three counties south of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley, is no different.

The Loma Prieta Chapter has been hard at work pursuing a “healthy cities” agenda through smart growth and transportation.  The Chapter got started in its work on healthy cities years ago-- while chapter activists were working to save open space  in the foothills of the coastal range and restore wetlands in the San Francisco bay, new development began to sprawl out into California’s fertile Central Valley, the nation’s fruit basket

Thus was born the Loma Prieta Chapter’s Sustainable Land Use committee.  While some members of the Committee have professional backgrounds in architecture and urban planning, all have a commitment to creating compact, walkable, diverse communities served by transit.  

On the Peninsula, the committee evaluates plans and projects in cities that are located along a linear transit corridor that includes the Caltrain commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose; the main north-south arterial road, El Camino Real, most heavily serviced by bus lines, and along BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in the North Bay and light rail in the South Bay. 

The Chapter evaluates new development projects and zoning proposals in eight cities along the corridor are evaluated through its Guidelines for Station Area Planning (PDF) and Guidelines for Developments.  These guidelines set a standard for development near El Camino, downtowns, and transit stations that feature: 

1.     Compact Development Livable, mixed-use communities with a diversity of housing options

2.     Community & Economic Benefits – Improved parks, additional shops and services, active downtown

3.     Pedestrian Priority – Development prioritizes walking and active lifestyles

4.     Transportation Alternatives – Safe bicycle facilities, reliable public transit

5.     Energy & Resource Efficiency – Green buildings and site developments

The Chapter’s “Cool Cities” teams in 20 cities across the region provide another layer of focus on healthy communities, with activists working to promote transit oriented development and streetscape improvements that encourage biking and walking.  Members are active in writing letters and op-eds in the local media and speaking up at local government forums.

The Loma Prieta Chapter has also partnered with other organizations in the region to form the Climate Friendly Communities Campaign, which works to educate and involve community members, agency decision makers and other stakeholders in the planning process that makes for healthier communities through a series of community education forums.  

This month’s Healthy Communities Forum, produced jointly with the local chapter of the American Lung Association, dealt with the health benefits of ‘active transportation’ like biking and walking, along with public transit and cleaner cars. 

At the forum, a local health expert outlined the health benefits of active transportation while pointing out the much-needed improvements in pedestrian and bicycle safety in our built environment.  In break-out sessions, attendees tackled the issue of how to make walking and biking safer in order to enjoy the health and climate benefits they convey to residents and the environment.

Turns out, the New York Times is talking about bike and pedestrian safety in the context of health, too.  So, while the Times is talking the talk, kudos to the Loma Prieta Chapter for walking the walk on healthy cities!

-- co-written by Rachel Butler of the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign and Irwin Dawid of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter.

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