The unincorporated area of North Richmond on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay is one of the poorest parts of the Bay Area. This small, diverse community of color confronts pollution from industrial sites, a nearby port, major freeways, and railroads, and residents struggle with significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and asthma than people who live elsewhere in the county – chronic diseases that are heavily influenced by the quality of the built environment.
The entire community has been declared blighted and falls within a Contra Costa County redevelopment area. But public health advocates are only starting to work with the many agencies that make decisions about North Richmond’s built environment.
Richmond, the much larger city next door, faces similar challenges. It is one of the first cities in the country to include a stand-alone health section in its general plan, thanks to a successful collaboration between Contra Costa Health Services, many community-based organizations, and the City of Richmond’s planning department. The Richmond general plan explicitly acknowleges the links between the design of the physical environment and potential health impacts, both positive and negative.
Now CCHS is reaching out to a new partner—the Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency—to develop a specific plan for North Richmond that includes healthy development as an integral goal. (While a general plan outlines broad ideas and visions for a community, a specific plan is a much more detailed blueprint for development.)
The North Richmond Specific Plan will guide the creation of a new neighborhood on 200 underused acres that lie between two creeks, major roads, and railroad tracks. The site once housed large flower nurseries, recycling and salvage yards, and storage facilities. The plan is to shift from these industrial uses to a new, mixed-use development.
Wendel Brunner, director of public health for Contra Costa Health Services, describes the key challenge in this and other partnerships between public health and redevelopment: building a community that is truly healthful and vibrant, and changing the income mix without displacing current residents. “How can we redevelop North Richmond in a way that will not only bring in middle-income people, but preserve and enhance the environment for people who are already there?” he asks.
The specific plan details what this new community within North Richmond will look like. It calls for the kinds of facilities and infrastructure that can promote health—things like businesses, public transportation, pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, parks and open space, places to buy healthy food, and dense, mixed-income housing. It also incorporates the North Richmond Truck Study, which recommends alternative routes for the big rigs that currently drive through residential neighborhoods. By rerouting the trucks onto major thoroughfares, CCHS and the redevelopment agency hope to reduce residents' exposure to diesel exhaust.
Including health as a fundamental part of the specific plan is partly the result of an unusual smart growth and healthy planning initiative called Planning Integration for Community Health. PITCH brings together members of the county's board of supervisors, redevelopment agency, and departments of health, community development, and public works to evaluate ways to improve community health through land use and redevelopment.
The North Richmond Specific Plan shows that these efforts are starting to take effect, says Jim Kennedy, redevelopment director for the Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency. "Public health hasn't been at the forefront of land use considerations,” he says, “but public health staff have good insights and approaches that we can integrate into this plan."