Richard Joseph Jackson, MD, and Designing Healthy Communities: Bringing “Health in all Policies” to the Forefront

By Cindy Winters, manager, Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm Project — a collaborative partnership of Allina Health, the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and the community of New Ulm

We are what we build. More than a decade ago, Richard Joseph Jackson, MD, MDH, a pediatrician turned public health officer, was the one of the first to bring to light the impacts that our built environment has on key public health indices. In 2012, one of his three books, “Designing Healthy Communities,” was the focus of a four-hour PBS series that connected the dotsof bad community design with burgeoning health costs, then analyzed and illustrated what ordinary citizens were trying to do about it by looking upstreamfor innovative solutions. At the third annual “Connecting to Transform Communities” conference, we’re honored to have Jackson as our opening keynote speaker on Nov. 17, 2015.

Currently a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jackson previously served as chief public health officer in the State of California and for nine years as director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. I’ve personally had the pleasure of hearing him speak several times over the past few years, and he really drives home the message of environmental impacts on our health and the health of our children. An internationally renowned expert in the field, he cares deeply about the environment and its health impacts, which comes through loud and clear in his presentations. 

Before I first heard Jackson speak, my personal interest in the environment was limited to the perspective of the built environment and how we as Americans have engineered physical activity out of our everyday lives. We’ve built communities and cities that require us to travel via car and it’s become easy for us to do our daily business and run errands without ever getting out of it.

Jackson helped me visualize the bigger picture by highlighting the relationship of our car dependence to air and water quality, and the resulting health impacts. He helped me better understand that in order to improve the health of a community’s residents, we need to partner with other agencies and organizations that don’t necessarily consider the public health consequences when making policy decisions. In short, as public health and population health advocates, it’s critical for us to be at the table when decisions about community design are being considered. 


As quoted on his website, Jackson said, “We must search for solutions that solve problems across many challenges; piecemeal strategies will fail. We must start from the bottom up, which means creating buildings and communities that use less resources and much less fossil fuels, at the same time offering a rich engagement in life, meaningful work, local healthy food, and plenty of ‘incidental’ physical activity. And from the top down, we must develop policies that incentivize ‘smart buildings’ and ‘smart communities’ and disincentivize plans and construction that threaten our national well-being and survival.”

Jackson was one of the most recent placemaking experts who participated in the Fourth Annual Placemaking Residency held in the Twin Cities in May 2015. The Placemaking residency looked at the intersection of our community design and population health, bringing together key decision makers, community advocates, business leaders and neighborhood residents to address the issues facing our communities today.

Join us at the Connecting conference and learn how you can take action to transform your community and improve the health of both residents and the environment.