Thursday, February 6, 2014

Let's Talk more about Public Health, Housing, and Development!

In the paper today was an article looking into anecdotal reports that the pending EPA inquiry on a possible cancer cluster in West Salem had impacted housing sales.

An implicit assumption in the piece seems to be that unimpeded housing sales in West Salem is an unambiguous good for Salem and its citizens.

A little snouty:  Houses lead with the garage!
You probably can't walk anywhere meaningful.
But in fact, as we debate the one billion dollar cost of a "third bridge," it's easy to see there's quite a large cost to unimpeded housing sales in West Salem.  A cost on which there is a clear price tag - even if we don't assign appropriate system development charges.  (We do have an urban growth boundary, and so at some level we have decided that true unimpeded growth is not a public good.)

Still, it's important we remember that we're only talking about the Salem River Crossing because the official modeling makes a chain of assumptions about population growth and vehicle miles traveled that depend in no small part on housing sales in West Salem.

Other costs to unimpeded housing sales are harder to monetize and to see as part of a market.

But public health costs are also incurred because of arsenic and auto particulates and the disincentives to walking or other regular exercise that the auto-dependent development patterns typical of West Salem entail.

While the premature deaths of children and young adults by cancer are especially shocking and tragic, we should not forget also to zoom out a bit and look at our systems and ask how our systems support or harm our health.

No wonder parents drive kids. (From two years ago)

Why would anyone walk here? (last month)
Running the systemic and actuarial risk numbers is beyond our math skillz here.

But it seems at least possible that the public health costs of auto-dependent development are more pervasive, debilitating, and life expectancy-reducing than what we will see if the EPA finds a statistically significant uptick in cancer rates and a correlation or cause in local contamination.

At the very least, since in the bridge we have a partial price tag on housing in West Salem, let's talk more about the costs of housing in West Salem and the way we offload and externalize a lot of those costs, costs in infrastructure and costs in public health.  Let's talk more about health and housing and the ways that our development patterns (and public investments or subsidies that enact and support them) do or do not support public health.

We already have some of an institutional framework for this analysis and conversation:

Community Health Improvement Partnership graphic

The Community Health Improvement Partnership is led by a City Councilor and is working on obesity.

"I Love Me" hasn't much been in the news, and may be dormant, but that's another relevant project.

Same for the 5210 project.

Finally, the Y has the Pioneering Healthier Communities project.

Most of these are focused on individual, discretionary moments of decision - eat more fruit, quit smoking, go to the gym.  It's a consumerist model of public health.

But it would not be difficult to look at the way we have created and subsidized systems that make these individual decisions difficult, that actually steer a person towards the unhealthy choice because it's the easy choice.  If the zoning doesn't permit a nearby neighborhood grocery store, of course you have to drive the the big box supermarket.  If the only way to get to the bus stop is a long walk without sidewalks on busy roads, of course you'd rather drive to work.  And so on...

So yeah, let's talk more about public health, housing, and development patterns.


Anonymous said...

A couple of notes:
At the recent Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual meeting, there were a number of sessions and posters regarding the link between transportation investment and health. Still early in quantifying the implications, but it seems to be a field that has been receiving more attention recently (and seems posed to grow).
There are many reasons people choose to walk, bike, bus or drive to a destination. Living in a relatively dense area (at least for Oregon) with a wide assortment of grocery stores nearby (from small convenience to a Fred Meyer) within (what I consider) easy walking distance [~10 blocks], I will let you know that the majority of my neighbors drive for their groceries (unless it is a gallon of milk that they need). I haven't bothered to ask them if they are trip chaining or not.

My point is that even if a store is nearby, it won't necessarily be attract the local population, and the mode selection is of course an open question.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Well, these are complicated systems, and as you say, just because a store is close, it doesn't mean the neighbors will choose it and choose to walk to it. It's good to highlight that there is a measure of empirical uncertainty about much of this!

But just because something is complicated also doesn't mean we shouldn't take steps to fix it! And just because our knowledge is imperfect or incomplete, that doesn't mean we shouldn't act on best available information. (A lot of change is iterative and multiple imperfect iterations may be necessary.)

One element in play here is the matter of necessary vs. sufficient conditions: Grocery store proximity may not be a sufficient condition by itself, but it is probably a necessary condition! Similarly, a bike lane on a busy street has not proven to be a sufficient lure to attract meaningful numbers of people on bike, though a bike lane or something like it is necessary in order to reach merchants located on busy streets.

Of course, as you point out, it's true that better data will help us with better decisions. For example, we might be surprised and learn that frequent nearby transit service would be more helpful than frequent and nearby neighborhood grocery stores. So it's good to see that a more robust body of research is being developed.

Since we can't fund everything we want, it will also be good to be able to target some decisions by how effective they are likely to be. And good to be able to temper ideas that sound good on paper - like bike lanes on busy streets - with data that shows the reality and shows the need for additional measures and investment.

Anyway, it is not possible just now to know all the positive answers - but we certainly have a raft of information about what is not working and what costs are hidden and/or externalized with our current development patterns. And we should want to make these things more visible and transparent. Driving and suburban development patterns should be seen as deliberate choices with trade-offs, and the result of great funding and investment, and not simply as the natural order of things.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

People keep talking about needing more stores in West Salem, but no body does anything about it. Tongue in cheek sort of.

I used to live in east Salem and there had the luxury on many choices of where to shop along Lancaster Dr.

My husband used to be able to walk over to Fred Meyer, shop and be back home within the hour.

Now that we live in West Salem, and have only two choices and both of them requiring driving several miles.

It has been talked about for years that we need a commercial area out by Doaks Ferry Road. But the West Salem Neighborhood Association has only agreed to a partial solution with a proposed mixed use zone at the intersection of Doaks Ferry and Orchard Heights. The property owner is not quite sure he can make it work at this time.

Trouble is that the mixture of shops we might want to have in such a location, is not the kind of shops we are likely to get. We might want a little grocery store, but we are more likely to get at best a convenience store that caters to kids and lotter/beer runs.

The thing that we as neighbors forget to consider and know virtually nothing about is the formula by which an investor uses to determine whether it is a viable location to set up shop. For example a grocery store actually has a formula that is used to see what their 'market share' will likely be. it has to be pretty high to make a major investment. A small 'mom and pop' business might take a chance to put in a small store, but the chances of survival is limited.

All that said, the thing that needs to be done in the meantime is to bite the bullet and re-zone for commercial development somewhere in the vicinity and then wait until development grows enough to support construction. This is what we have done in the past and for some reason have abandoned. We need comprehensive planning back where we design future growth areas into a desired pattern.

Of course finding good walkable locations in West Salem is always going to be a difficult task, because we are fighting the landscape. But even if we have to drive a bit, it is better to drive a mile rather than 3 or 4 miles. So, lets begin the process before it is too late!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Readers interested in Doaks and Orchard Heights and the NCMU zoning, can see a discussion here.)