Health Happenings. Kansas Health Foundation. Changing Lives. Improving Health. November 2011

The built environment. The edge of the abyss or the beginning of our new reality?

Dr. Richard JacksonBy Mark E. McCormick

Dr. Richard Jackson related a story during his luncheon presentation on Tuesday, October 25, of an elderly woman attempting to cross a treacherous thoroughfare. It illustrated what Jackson, professor and department chair at UCLA's Environmental Health Sciences School of Public Health, called a "common-source epidemic" – the manifestations of how the world we've built around us conspires daily against our health.

The roadway must have had six lanes and the blacktop pushed the day's oppressive heat beyond the thermometer's 95 degrees. He thought he should stop, but pulled by obligations, continued on. Still, the struggling woman's image haunted him.

If she collapsed from the heat, the medical examiner's report would indicate that, he thought, and if a car veered into her, the coroner's report would indicate that. But under those circumstances – and even if nothing happened – we'd somehow miss the nexus of deadly environmental issues on that corner and on millions of others across the country, he said.

So, during his presentation, Dr. Jackson calmly took me, and the more than 160 other people gathered to hear his Kansas Health Foundation sponsored discussion on built environments, to the edge of our awareness abyss, let us peek over the side, then assured us that our destiny was not there, but wherever we chose to build it.

Over the side, we saw a mere sampling of the startling ways the environments we build for ourselves wage subtle but serious attacks on our health every day: The use of antidepressants is up 400% in the past 20 years; 21 percent of the U.S. population will have diabetes by 2050; Liquor stores are sometimes twice as plentiful in the poorer neighborhoods that can least afford to have any.

Jackson didn't stop there.

He talked also about how our love affair with cars colludes against our health. We've designed our cities and neighborhoods, he said, for driving instead of walking.

But in the same way that we've built a society more hospitable for cars than for people, Jackson said we can build a healthier world for ourselves.

We need more walking-friendly neighborhoods built closer to schools, shopping and other amenities to encourage healthier habits such as walking and bike riding. We can lean on architecture, too. Beautiful structures with natural light and safe, attractive staircases soothe the spirit and likely have health benefits of their own.

We begin by stepping back from the abyss and turning to confront the environment we've built for ourselves.

"It's about leadership," he said simply.

Then, as Dr. Jackson did with us, we can join hands and lead each other – friends, neighbors and little old ladies crossing our streets – away from the myriad dangers of our old built environment and into the more healthful ones in our future.

Mark E. McCormick is the director of communications at The Kansas Leadership Center.

View Jackson's full PowerPoint presentation here: