About 450 pages into Richmond’s draft General Plan update, readers are presented with a vision for the community eighteen years from now. It presents a Richmond with pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined streets in neighborhoods chock full of farmer’s markets, full-service grocery stores and community gardens. The city’s parks are safe, well kept, full of programs and regularly used by residents. Air and water quality has improved and rates of asthma, diabetes and other conditions linked to poor physical and environmental health are on the decline. “Richmond’s neighborhood schools are thriving centers that educate children and parents about healthy eating,” the document reads, and describes children leaving the local school system to attend college in increasing numbers and find jobs in a Richmond that has ample employment opportunities.
This vision is the goal of a new health element being added to the city’s general plan. Lofty and ambitious, it borders on utopian. And that’s the point, says Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. “We think of this as really a visionary blueprint for the city,” she said. “This city came out of an industrial age and Richmond is really moving forward in a pretty profound and swift way.”
In July the city will approve a new general plan, a huge policy document that will shape the future of the city for the next couple decades. The process of updating it has been going on for nearly five years.
The proposed health and wellness section of the general plan takes aim at making Richmond healthier through eleven vectors. It focuses on improving access to parks, healthy food, medical services, and job opportunities; improving neighborhood safety, the quality of public housing, environmental quality and public transit; supporting green and sustainable development; and building neighborhoods that include necessary goods and services within walking distance. To that end, 48 pages of suggested policies are laid out in the document that mandate, encourage or allow the city to take action over the 20-year life of the general plan.
California law requires that cities have an updated general plan that addresses urban design, traffic, parks, conservation and other issues that relate to the built environment. But Richmond decided early in the process to add a community health and wellness element that will also address the socio-economic conditions that largely account for health disparities among low-income and minority communities.
“The way we structure communities, and the way we build our neighborhoods and cities have major implications for public health,” said Daniel Iacofano, a principal with Berkeley-based MIG, Inc., an urban planning firm the city hired to draft the element.
The health element of the new plan was funded by a $255 million grant from the California Endowment. Richmond will be the first city in California to include a standalone health-focused chapter in their plan.
That the built environment—everything from the layout of roads and railroad tracks, land use, zoning, development, industrial facilities, housing and parks—impacts public health is not a new concept. In fact, Iacofano says that urban planning actually started as a public health project. “The original zoning code proffered in New York City at the beginning of the last century was offered as a reaction to dirt, stench, filth, garbage piling up in the streets,” he said, “and recognizing that tenements in the city were not fit for human life and unscrupulous landlords were taking advantage of immigrants.”