Published on April 2, 2010
Richmond’s New Priority: Taking Health
By FRANCES DINKELSPIEL
Daniel Weintraub has reported on California politics
and policy for more than 20 years.
Richmond has widespread poverty, a high crime
rate and a reputation as a tough, gritty city. In a region
that has been moving steadily from heavy industry to an economy
dominated by information and services, Richmond remains home
to a major oil refinery.
So it might come as a surprise that the city is leading the
Bay Area into the future of urban planning. Richmond is close
to adopting a new vision for itself that makes the health of
its residents a top priority. And this is not just some abstract
document that will be circulated proudly among planning geeks
at conferences while having no real effect on people’s lives.
It comes with a plan of action that promises to change life
on the streets of Richmond and shape development for years
“We definitely believe we are on the cutting edge of showing
how a city can work on this level, in terms of its thinking,
its planning, changing its policies to focus on the basic health
needs of the community,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said in a recent
interview. “We want to really turn around the years of pollution
and neglect.” [emphasis added]
The plan lays out 10 goals that will be considered as part
of nearly every city policy and be used to evaluate proposed
housing, commercial and industrial developments.
The broad hope is to create a walkable city where residents
of all income levels have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,
parks and open space, and good housing; where people strolling
the sidewalks are safe from criminals and cars alike, and where
the elderly and the disabled have access to public transportation
that will take them to their medical appointments.
These changes, city officials believe, will help reduce disparities
between the health of Richmond’s residents and those who live
nearby under better conditions, and will even reduce the differences
among Richmond’s own neighborhoods.
Richmond’s poverty rate is double the average in Contra Costa
County, and the city’s residents have the county’s highest
death rate from diabetes, a higher-than-average rate of children
with serious asthma, and the second-highest rates for hospitalizations
resulting from mental illness and drug abuse. A resident of
Richmond is three times more likely to be murdered than someone
living across the bay in San Francisco.
Much of this social dysfunction is concentrated in just a
handful of the city’s 35 neighborhoods. And two of those troubled
neighborhoods — the Northern Iron Triangle and Belding Woods
— are already part of a pilot project through which the city
hopes to demonstrate how its new strategy will work in practice.
Already, the city is making plans to improve parks, plant
more trees along streets, enforce traffic rules more strictly
and improve street lighting. Community gardens are popping
up along a city greenbelt, the planning department is working
on expanding farmers markets, and the city is cooperating with
the county to ensure that every resident who is eligible for
food stamps gets them.
And when developers apply to build new projects in the city,
the review will include an assessment of whether the proposals
are consistent with the new goals, which will be part of the
city’s general plan.
Mike Ghielmetti, president of Signature Properties and chairman
of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, said
he did not believe that science had shown a clear connection
between housing and afflictions like obesity and asthma.
Suburban neighborhoods of the 1950s were even less walkable
than today’s are, Mr. Ghielmetti said, but their residents
were fitter. “Why is new housing being tasked with something
that is perceived to be a community burden?” he asked.
Mr. Ghielmetti suggested that cars, fast food, television
shows and video games had more to do with obesity than housing
and neighborhood design. “They’re going after the wrong party,”
he said, referring to Richmond officials.
But Mayor McLaughlin said builders and others were going to
have to get used to a new way of doing business in the city.
“We are moving away from depending on fossil fuels,” she said.
Some day, she said, that Chevron oil refinery on the waterfront
will be obsolete. She would love to see it converted to supplying
renewable fuels to the region. If not, it would be a “very
valuable piece” of real estate. For a park, perhaps. Or a walkable
neighborhood, with great views.
“We have come from a hundred years of planning decisions based
on a massive and complex freeway system and heavy industry,”
the mayor said, “and now we are planning for developments that
are livable, walkable, bike-friendly, communities.” [emphasis