Jackson: Sprawling cities, towns may be killing us

Mecklenburg subdivision, 2005 photo, Nancy Pierce

Richard Jackson thinks it’s time to stop blaming individuals for the U.S. obesity problem. The problem, he believes, is far more systemic, including the automobile-centric design of modern American life and the ready availability of high-sugar and high-fat foods.

He thinks today’s parental fears of child abductions are not realistic and hurt children’s need for outdoor play. 

And he thinks cost estimates for mass transit projects should factor in the health benefits that research has found related to the daily walk to and from transit stops.

An interview with Dr. Richard Jackson 

Jackson, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, offered a wide-ranging series of observations Wednesday at the Annual Dialogue for a Healthier Charlotte at UNC Charlotte Center City. Primary sponsors for the evening were BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina and the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services.

When he was director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, Jackson was among the earliest public health officials to start examining the public health implications of the way modern American cities and towns are built – requiring residents to drive almost everywhere.

He described his 1990s epiphany – noticing on a hot, humid summer day in Atlanta how an elderly woman was struggling to walk along Buford Highway, a multi-lane road filled with traffic. If she got hit by a truck, he mused, it would be tallied as a traffic death. If she died of heat stroke, it would be tallied as heat-related death. But, he recalled thinking, what really would have killed her would be the punishing environment for pedestrians.

He wrote a paper on the theme, he said, pointing out the role being played by suburban-style development, and recalled that the national homebuilders’ lobby got 15 members of Congress to urge the CDC director to fire him.  He was not fired, and began more research into the topic.

Since then, he said, more and more medical professionals are looking at the role of the built environment as one factor, among many, in Americans’ growing obesity and diabetes problems.  By 2009, he said, the American Academy of Pediatrics was recommending a redesign of communities, to help children get more exercise. And a real estate and development group, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, has created a toolkit for “building healthy places.”

He cited research (from Charlotte), that found that a connection between using light rail transit to commute to work and losing an average of about 6 pounds of body weight. (Read that research here.)

Jackson also said:

  • Americans have “medicalized” obesity, treating obesity-related problems such as high blood pressure and depression with medications, instead of trying to change their communities so exercise, such as walking or biking to school or work, is readily available.
  • The leading cause of death among Americans age 3 to 34 is car wrecks.
  • During the 20th century, the average U.S. lifespan increased by 30 years. Of those 30 more years of life, only 5 came from advances in medical care; the other 25 came from immunizations and from “infrastructure” – safer water supplies, better food, safer cars, etc.
  • Serious scientists are predicting half a billion lives will be lost in the 21st century to climate change. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere are “code blue for Planet Earth.”
  • The annual per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in the U.S. is 63 pounds. “We didn’t eat any in 1967.”

Other sponsors of Jackson’s talk were the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and UNC Charlotte’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Arts + Architecture, Department of Public Health Sciences, Integrated Network for Social Sustainability and Center for Professional & Applied Ethics.