Riverside County Wants Healthier Cities

Obesity. Heart disease. Stroke. Lung Cancer. Almost two-thirds of the deaths in Riverside County are linked to poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and tobacco use.  And the county ranks just about last (54th out of 56 California counties) on making the physical environment conducive to health.

The Riverside County Health Coalition is fighting the problem by getting local governments to prioritize health and recently released a Healthy City Resolution Tool Kit and held a one-day conference to help the 28 local cities get started.

One of the guest speakers, Bill Anderson of the American Planning Association, praised the plan. “It’s a good first step and a leading first step in the country.”

The tool kit gives cities tips on how to promote health by passing a “healthy city” resolution and then writing health into the general plan. The city plan then informs decisions going forward on things like land use, parks and recreation programs, access to healthy food and public transportation. The County Board of Supervisors took the lead in 2011, passing a “healthy county” resolution.  Many cities now require new developments to include open parks and bike lanes. They are also required to build sidewalks and pass-throughs so people can walk to schools and shopping areas. Cities can also limit the number of liquor stores and encourage the establishment of a farmers market.

One family’s trailer in Riverside County, devastated in a storm. Photo: Suzanne Potter.

The Clinton Health Matters Initiative is involved, too, and will provide an expert analysis of the general plans for the Coachella Valley’s nine cities.  Alexander Chan, with the Clinton Foundation, says, “Most of the plans had parks and recreation, open space and biking and walking trails. What they didn’t have was language, programs or policies related to healthy food access or other types of healthy behavioral changes that affect a healthy quality of life.”

The City of Coachella, for example, is already updating its general plan to reflect this new emphasis in the areas of public safety, community health, parks and recreation, land use planning, engineering and transportation.  State law requires that all decisions are in line with the city’s general plan.

Cities can encourage mixed-use neighborhoods and make public transportation cheap and easy, which allow people to live closer to their workplace and also encourage biking and walking. While residents will hold on to their car, families may no longer need that second or third vehicle.  “For many households, that’s an important savings,” Anderson says.  “So there are different types of economic benefit that come from a healthy planning approach to city building.”

Seniors have a healthier retirement when they have easy access to health care, services, friends and family.  He adds, “There is some point where people want to walk and not have to drive for everything they do.”

“People who live near transit weigh less and are more physically active. You reduce pollution, there is less stress, people are happier and healthier,” adds Michael Osur, Deputy Director of the Riverside County Department of Public Health.  “We have so much building that is going on, but also as we do in-fill projects, as we re-do housing developments, we can think about where is the bike lane gonna go, how can the sidewalk connect? All it takes is planning.  It costs the same; you just have to plan it with that in mind.”

Cities can also save big money by offering wellness programs to their employees. The City of Riverside saw insurance claims plunge after it instituted a healthy living program at City Hall.  The city’s insurance providers even reimbursed it almost half a million dollars last year.  Al Zelinka, Community Development Director for the City of Riverside, said, “This isn’t just fluff; this is about real dollars, real cents.”

Riverside also wants to improve people’s mobility and boost the commercial corridors by bringing back the old streetcar system. “Public health is tied to the way that places are built and maintained,” Zelinka said, “and all of that is tied to the economic vitality of the community.”



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