Guest Commentary: How Community Design Can Improve Your Health

Photo from City of Davis, Safe Routes to School

By Judy Corbett

It’s a surprise to many, but there is a relationship between the way a community is planned and the overall health and life span of the people who live there!  This is something to keep in mind as we prepare a new downtown plan for Davis, then move on to produce an updated general plan for the entire City.

On Wednesday, April 4, the Davis Futures Forum will feature Dr. Elizabeth Baca who will be addressing this timely topic – community design, physical activity and health.  Her presentation will be held in the Davis city council chambers at 7 PM.  A response panel will follow, including Kaiser’s delightful family physician, Dr. John Chuck. Peter Jacobson with Bike Davis and Sheila Allen, Executive Director of Yolo Healthy Aging Alliance.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Baca is the health advisor in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, California’s comprehensive planning agency.  She has led the effort to incorporate health, environmental justice, and equity considerations into the General Plan Guidelines Update – a government document that guides the work of cities and counties as they update their general plans.

Dr. Baca’s clinical work has reinforced her view that much of health happens outside of clinics and hospitals. She says it is actually much broader than that.  Job creation, housing support, access to quality education, affordable transportation, and support networks are really the foundation not only for health, but also for society to thrive.  She has become passionate about reducing health disparities and working to improve the environment to build healthy communities.

The field of land use planning and health is a relatively new one and Baca is at the forefront. This movement began in the mid nineties, when the Director of Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had an epiphany.  Dr. Richard Jackson understood that physical activity is critical to health and that people in this country were passing away at a younger age.  Could the problem be that for the majority of people, it was no longer safe nor even possible to walk, bike, or take transit to work or the market, or for kids to walk or bike to school?  Could the decline in the health of the US population be a result of sprawl and the resulting traffic congestion that forces people to spend more and more time in their cars?

Jackson’s hypothesis regarding physical activity, health and community design and his activism around this issue was quickly picked up by those concerned about the rapidly growing numbers of overweight and obese children and adults in the US – the concern was so great that overweight and obesity were declared to have reached epidemic proportions.   Research dollars followed from both federal sources and foundations.  The result – Jackson’s hypothesis was confirmed.  The way we design our communities does indeed impact physical activity and health.  Those who live where they can walk, bike, and take transit to their daily destinations get more physical activity and are healthier than those who are forced to spend much of their lives in a car.

Not long after, some leading physicians at Kaiser Permanente began to encourage their patients to walk rather than drive to nearby destinations and some county public health officials started to get involved in neighborhood planning with the goal of making it easier and safer for people to incorporate physical activity in their daily lives.

In Davis, a national leader in accommodating bicycle travel, ¾ of us still drive rather than bike or walk to work.  Given our busy lifestyles, we tend to use the fastest way to get where we need to go.  To maximize the health or our population, we need to design our communities so it is quicker, safer, and more pleasant to walk, bike, or take transit to our daily destinations.  This is something to keep in mind as we prepare a new downtown plan, then move on to prepare a new general plan for the entire City.

We thank Bike Davis for sponsoring Baca’s presentation to be held in the City Hall, Wednesday, April 4, 7 to 8:30 PM.  To guarantee a seat, please obtain a ticket at

Judy Corbett is a Davis resident and a founder of the Local Government Commission

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. Alan Miller

    >To maximize the health or our population, we need to design our communities so it is quicker, safer, and more pleasant to walk, bike, or take transit to our daily destinations.

    Agree . . . then why is this City, that once built great grade-separated bike under-crossings, now building feeble design crossings or none?  CONVENIENCE and DIRECTNESS and feeling of SAFETY are what get people to use alternative transportation facilities . . . not cheapest to build or what UPRR insists on.

  2. Howard P

    So many half-truths, so little time/inclination to refute each and every…

    But, there are no City streets in Davis, that by policy/law are NOT shared facilities for MV’s, bicycle users and pedestrians… none that I can think of…

    Yet there are probably close to 100 miles of bike/ped trails, in greenbelts and bike over/undercrossings, that are pretty direct to main destinations, where MV’s are excluded.

    Personal “comfort” as to “safety” are very individual views.  Some bicycle riders and even pedestrians are comortable getting around, between cities, even on Co Roads that have no full bike lanes, no sidewalks… at the other extreme are those who want absolutely no chance that a bicycle has a chance of being involved with a collision with a MV; or, absolutely no chance that a pedestrian will ever be involved with a crash/collision with a MV OR bicyclist.

    At what level of “safety” (or, ‘feeling’ of safety) should the City commit to?

    Meant as an honest question…

  3. Tia Will

    But, there are no City streets in Davis, that by policy/law are NOT shared facilities for MV’s, bicycle users and pedestrians… none that I can think of…”

    If you are including spaces that are not paved and therefore become mud tracks following rain, inconvenient if not unsafe for a pedestrian to walk, I would agree. However, check out the south “side walk” along East 4th St in OED. Or perhaps you might check out the lack of sidewalk along the east side of the Richards overpass ( which you have to know in advance is unpaved or find yourself with nowhere to walk) thus forcing you to double back and cross to the south side . The situation of the Northstar development was the same with a lack of paved sidewalks with years elapsing between full build out of the second division and paving of a walking route along F street.

    This may seem trivial to some who think that “no one walks along there anyway” completely failing to realize that more might if it were truly accessible. However, what it does is to reinforce the automobile as primary means of transportation.

  4. Tia Will


    I agree with you that how much to commit to safety is a very reasonable question. I offer no quantifiable answer. But I would offer one response that I think is irrefutable and does not depend on any subjective “feeling” of safety. Let’s start with the premise that if there were no places in which automobiles and human powered means of locomotion intersected, there would be no possibility of collision of automobiles and humans. We made a fundamental transportation error generations ago when we decided in favor of the automobile as our primary means of transportation and have been living with the adverse consequences of this decision even since.

    I would like our city to address this fundamental error in some basic limited ways. I would like to see adoption of more flexible, less automobile dependent means of transportation & delivery. For example, a limited walking mall downtown, people powered transportation such as the bike cabs that operate on picnic day, people powered delivery of goods that may be too heavy or bulky to carry a few blocks ( delivery to peripherally parked car for example as well as to homes). We have a precedent for the latter in the form of The Pepper Peddler who has delivered freshly roasted coffee to our house on bike for years. I can see drone delivery as an option in the not too distant future.

    One critical point is to recognize that we, as a society, have traded environmental, societal and individual health for the speed and perceived convenience of getting from one place to another more rapidly. Choosing to slow down, move on feet or by bike also has advantages of increased physical health, more engagement with our immediate surroundings, less frustration, pollution, and environmental degradation, and the opportunity to spend the millions that now “need” to be spent on roads could be spent on education, health care or any host of items more beneficial to humans than a single expensive mode of transportation that we have adopted as “necessary” when another means would frequently be better for us not only in terms of short term safety, but also in long term health and environmental effects.

  5. Todd Edelman

    The City of Davis has the things that Howard mentions, yes, but then why is the burden of bicycle modal share more-or-less expected to be the responsibility of people who cannot drive themselves to school (easily): Junior High and UCD students (faculty, staff)? Why is current cycling-to-the-store share probably 1/10 of the goal for 2020? How come the city has no goals for walking or transit share (or maximum car driving share)? How come the current Pedestrian and Bicycle Coordinator said that the further addition of “smart” bike lockers at Davis Depot “meet our needs” (March BTSSC meeting) when they allow long-tail bikes (Google e.g. “Yuba Mundo”) but not larger cargo bikes – an indispensable contributor to high double-digit bicycle modal share in several northern/western European countries and highlighted in the Davis Bicycle Plan, not to mention bikes with trailers? (Imagine if Davis Depot parking lot excluded SUV’s — there would be a riot or worse) and thus makes unviable a program I proposed to promote these types of bikes for shopping, how come the same coordinator thinks it’s okay to use police to scare cyclists who don’t have lights because they won’t stop Public Works employees, how come it’s okay to prioritize hundreds of parking spaces at Nishi 2.0 over the needs of the majority living there (by instead implementing a thicker forest barrier or food-growing in this space), or that the City/SACOG is a partner in a bike share system that excludes children who can drive cars and men just a bit higher in weight than the national average and that zero of my fellow BTSS Commissioners (only four others were present) would second my motion that addressed this? And that the Davis Bike Club similarly showed no interest in preventing this ageist clusterf*ck?  That WDAAC wasn’t instantly rejected when its projected automobile modal share is 97.15% in its Draft EIR?

    Again, the pennyfarthing-highwheeler anti-egalitarian anachronist symbol reached its heydey 30 years before Davis was founded. I get that it’s meant to send the message that cycling’s been established in Davis for a long time, but even the more accurate popular representation of this, a photo of a woman likely on a low-stepover (woman’s) bike on a physically-separated bicycle path, is highly problematic because that specific design doesn’t really exist in Davis any longer and has not yet been improved upon. If Davis was known as a place with long-established Feminism, the equivalent of that silly bicycle symbol would be a corset, or if we were known for support of Reproductive Rights, the symbol would be a chastity belt.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for