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Factor health into design

OUR VIEW • Physical impacts of bridge must be considered
by: L.E. BASKOW, 
Many discussions have taken place regarding the proposed I-5 bridge, but little attention has been paid to the impact the span will have on residents’ physical health.

The proposed Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River has a potential price tag of more than $4 billion and will have an impact on our region for decades to come.

'Due diligence' requires that we consider the health of our community as a primary factor in the design. Unfortunately, the impact on human health, both for commuters and those living in nearby communities, has not received as much attention as traffic flows or the finances of the proposed toll.

Air pollution, for example, is known to cause respiratory disease and cancer; excessive noise causes cardiovascular disease and impaired mental functioning. These impacts fall disproportionately on low-income households living close to the freeway, but we all share the costs.

As members of a diverse group of organizations, we've come together to better understand and examine the health impacts of the Columbia River Crossing and other large developments.

As part of this effort, the Multnomah County Health Department and diverse partners conducted a Health Impact Assessment on the Columbia River Crossing (see www.co.multnomah.or.us/health/ to read the full assessment). A variety of health impacts were highlighted that are not fully considered in the more than 4,000 pages of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the bridge crossing.

Although widely used in Europe and Australia, health impact assessments just recently are being used in the U.S.

Our neighbors in Clark County and King County, Wash., both have created health impact assessments for major land use and transportation projects. We here in Oregon need to advance our use of this tool as we strive for healthier, more livable communities.

Only through a close examination of health impacts can we hope to design communities that promote more physical activity, reduce air pollution, and increase access to healthy foods.

These can be effective approaches to reduce the burden of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. As our country continues to be threatened with shorter lifespans from chronic disease, we should consider how our lifestyle and communities affect our health.

We need to be more vigilant at looking at the link between our health and the design of our neighborhoods and our methods of transportation.

In effect, our community designs can make us sick or keep us healthy.

Our region long has been known as a model for sustainable development. We can and should become a model for healthy community design - by building usable sidewalks and safe bike routes, and promoting public transportation to increase physical activity.

Pursuing these and other healthy designs may be the best prescription for fighting the chronic diseases that are killing us.

Mel Rader is project director for Upstream Public Health. Phil Wu is a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente. Noelle Dobson is director of healthy eating at Active Living, Community Health Partnership. Sandy Johnson is planning and evaluation manager for the Multnomah County Health Department. Meg Merrick is a coordinator for the Community Geography Project at Portland State University. Jill Fuglister is co-director of Coalition for a Livable Future.