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The Built Environment and Health

Without us realizing it, the buildings, streets, and open space that make up our communities – the built environment – shape our lives, our social relationships, our behavior and especially our health. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, asthma, injuries and violence have all been linked to the places where people live and work, the distance between these places and how people get from one place to another.

Yet, we have traditionally built our cities, towns and neighborhoods with little thought to health and safety. All too often, the result has been poor health outcomes overall, and especially egregious health disparities in communities of color and low-income communities. If the way neighborhoods are built contributes to health problems and concentrates inequities, they can also be planned and constructed in a way that reduces risk factors for chronic disease, exposure to toxins, traffic injuries and violence – and improves health and quality of life for residents of all income levels.

The Built Environment Program aims to accomplish these goals by addressing:

  • Injuries:
    Poorly designed, auto-centric neighborhoods expose pedestrians, bicyclists and others to car crashes—the leading cause of unintentional injury death.
  • Physical Activity:
    Many places in Contra Costa County do not have infrastructure that promotes physical activity (such as complete streets, sidewalks, bike lanes and parks) contributing to diabetes, chronic disease and obesity.
  • Nutrition and Food Security:
    Contra Costa County has 4.66 times as many fast food restaurants as grocery stores and produce vendors, making it difficult for many residents to eat a healthy diet.
  • Tobacco:
    Secondhand smoke makes many public spaces and multifamily housing units toxic, exposing even non-smokers to lung cancer and heart disease.
  • Lead Poisoning:
    In many older neighborhoods, lead dust from older homes hurts many parts of the body—particularly the growing brains and nervous systems of young children.
  • Climate Change:
    We recently identified health impacts of climate change in the county's draft Climate Action Plan. As part of that process, we also analyzed the ways in which actions taken to prevent further climate change can immediately improve people's health, a positive side-effect known as a health "co-benefit." We've also created maps showing where rising temperatures and sea levels will have the most impact in Contra Costa County.