Richard Jackson: Defining Places of the Heart

Healthy communities crusader and Adjunct Professor Richard Jackson comes to UC Berkeley and COEH by way of Sacramento, where he recently served as state public health officer in the California Department of Health Services. Jackson said he left his state post in 2005 frustrated by the “dramatic mismatch” between the position’s responsibilities and authority.

“One minute we were dealing with West Nile virus, the next perchlorate in water, then a flu vaccine shortage…and everyone had a stake in the outcome,” said Jackson. “My ability to weigh evidence and argue for what I thought was right in public was nearly always impeded.”

Prior to his stint in Sacramento, Jackson spent ten years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he was director of the National Center for Environmental Health and later senior advisor to the director. He oversaw major increases in the NCEH budget and led efforts for a national chemical bio-monitoring program.

But over time, said Jackson, he became convinced that the built environment— that is, the physical layout and design of towns and cities—was at the core of many environmental health problems, from asthma, to cancer, to climate related disasters.

“Public health walked away from urban planning and design about fifty years ago, thinking everything’s better now that we’re all in cars,” he explained. But Jackson said he was one of the first public health leaders to point out that communities designed for cars were leaving human needs—like safety, security, and clean air and water—in the lurch.

For communities to safeguard health, Jackson argues, they need safe pedestrian passageways and bike lanes, schools and shops within walking distance of homes, places for neighbors to interact, and gathering points for times of crisis. They need to be cohesive, dense, tranquil, beautiful and resilient. They also need to become what Jackson calls “places of the heart”— a concept that’s difficult to define, but that refers to the sense of comfort, security,inspiration and support a well-designed city or town provides.

Jackson argues that architects and city planners can do as much to protect public health as doctors can—an idea that was considered “off the charts” as little as five years ago. But the notion that community design influences human physical and emotional health is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom. As evidence, Jackson points out that he’s the first pediatrician to become an American Institute of Architects board member.

Exploring the built environment’s effects on health is now Jackson’s academic pursuit. He has co-authored a book on the topic, Urban Sprawl and Public Health. He’s brainstorming ideas for county, state and national legislation to promote healthy cities. He’s also teaching a new course, the Built Environment and Public Health, at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and working hard to shape the curriculum into a product he can share with other faculty and schools.

Jackson said he had many reasons for entering academia following his career in government service. He describes his Cal roots as “long and deep.” He is a UCSF-trained physician who worked as an epidemiologist for the California Health Department on Berkeley Way for 15 years. He earned his MPH in epidemiology at the School of Public Health in 1979; his youngest son is currently a Berkeley undergraduate; and his wife and many other family members are also Berkeley alums.

His Berkeley post is giving him time to concentrate on teaching, lecturing and writing across disciplines. “I don’t want to spend time adding another snowball to the Himalayan mountain of knowledge” at the university, said Jackson. “My ambition is to see that knowledge applied to make lasting change.”
Source: COEH Bridges