Climate Change Planning: An Opportunity for Public Health

February 23, 2012

By Pilar Lorenzana-Campo

Groundbreaking legislation passed in 2008 could be a major step toward changing the way neighborhoods are designed throughout the state, curbing sprawl and creating safer, more walkable communities. The law, known as SB 375, is a huge and unprecedented opportunity for public health, potentially making it safer and easier for all Californians — including elderly, disabled, and low-income residents — to be more active, breathe cleaner air, and even buy healthier foods.

But to make sure the law promotes public health on all of these fronts – and serves as a strong model for other states around the country – Californians need to keep policy leaders accountable for its potential.

California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act is the first law in the nation to link transportation funding, land use planning, and housing policy with an effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

What does this have to do with improving public health? Just about everything. Many policies aimed at reducing automobile use and greenhouse gases not only cut back on pollution but also help create neighborhoods where people can walk safely and easily.

Pedestrians getting hit by cars now account for up to 12 percent of all roadway collision deaths nationwide. Traffic speed is closely linked to the number and severity of pedestrian injuries: when a car traveling 20 miles per hour hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian will be killed only 5 percent of the time; if the car is traveling 40 miles per hour, the pedestrian will be killed about 80 percent of the time. And nationwide, collisions with pedestrians are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks, and close to half of pedestrian fatalities occur where no crosswalk is available.

Linking public transportation with compact, walkable communities increases the likelihood that people can safely take transit, walk, or bike to school, work, or the grocery store. And almost a third of Americans who commute to work via public transit meet their daily recommendations for physical activity (30 or more minutes a day) by walking as part of their daily routine.

One of the core provisions of SB 375 is that regions throughout California will have to prepare what’s called a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” (SCS) as part of the regional transportation plan they’re already required to prepare every four or five years. To cut back automobile use, these plans can call for policies that create more “human-scale” communities: neighborhoods where residences, businesses, and offices are located near each other and are accessible by public transit, walking, and biking. The plans can also help reduce social and health inequities by investing dollars into building access to transportation in low-income neighborhoods.

What’s the biggest incentive for communities to change their development patterns? Money will flow to those that comply with their regional SCS. The State of California will distribute $17 million a year to fund transportation projects that are consistent with the SCS. Cities and counties don’t have to follow the SCS plan – but by linking transportation funding with the SCS, the state hopes to promote more compact, transit-oriented development patterns.

The SCS planning process offers a prime opportunity to speak out about the importance of these strategies for public health. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) oversee the process in each region, setting timelines and opportunities for input. For current information, including staff contacts at each regional MPO, see www.dot.ca.gov/hq/tpp/offices/orip.

California residents can join or create regional advocacy groups to provide comments on draft SCS proposals and press for healthier, more equitable land use and transportation planning. Public health coalitions in several regions have already successfully pushed to include health performance metrics like safety, access to jobs and services, environmental pollution, and equity in their SCS plans to make sure these considerations are taken into account.

Residents also can work to educate transportation commissioners and other community leaders about the health effects of transportation and land use decisions, urging them to prioritize strategies that create more walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods – and holding them accountable for their decisions.

With SB 375 planning deep in the works, now is the time to push for strategies that will improve California residents’ health and well-being for decades into the future.

For more about how to get involved in climate change planning to promote public health, see www.phlpnet.org/cc/products/climate-change-planning.


Pilar Lorenzana-Campo is a senior associate in planning and development at Public Health Law & Policy, a research and training center based in Oakland.

NOTE: This article was updated on March 5 to correct a reference to roadway collision deaths. The original article incorrectly stated that such collisions account for 17 percent of all deaths in California.

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