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Study: California's Urban River Parkways Improve Health

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SACRAMENTO -- California's urban river parkways provide an important prescription to combat epidemic rates of obesity, diabetes, and other threats to public health, according to a report just released  by Dr. Richard Jackson, one of America's foremost authorities on the connections between land use and public health.

Dr. Jackson, who chairs the Environmental Health Sciences department at UCLA and formerly served as California's State Health Officer and worked at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says in this first-ever report on the impacts on health of urban river parkways that they can increase the physical and mental health of both adults and children. River parkways are trails and natural areas along rivers and creeks that link homes, parks, workplaces, and schools.

"There is no medicine or treatment that works as well to reduce the negative effects of obesity and related illnesses as physical activity, such as walking, running, and bicycling," notes Dr. Jackson. "River parkways, particularly in urban areas, are nearly irresistible because they provide the proper infrastructure and an attractive setting for engaging in physical activity. River parkways can benefit physical, mental, community, and environmental health, as well as the overall economic well-being of the population at large."

River parkways that include trails are smart public investments, notes the report. "Every $1 invested in trails for physical activity leads to nearly $3 in direct medical benefits and health-care savings. Promoting healthier lifestyles not only improves our quality of life, but offers a way to help drive down health care costs and preempt a host of preventable diseases," the report concludes.

That is critical, Dr. Jackson notes, in a state where CDC reports that less than half of all adults are as active as they should be, (meaning they do not meet the minimum recommended 2.5 hours of aerobic physical activity per week). In addition, 22% of adults report that they do not participate in any leisure-time physical activity.

The lack of physical activity is directly connected to our state's chronic obesity rates. As of 2012, 25% of all adults in California were considered obese, leading to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers. Communities of color are at even higher risks.

However, smart development of urban river parkways can help ensure everyone in this state, regardless of socioeconomic status, has an opportunity to enjoy outdoor spaces and live a healthier lifestyle. Developing these parkways also helps beautify and improve our cities, retaining and enhancing an important natural component of what are now urban habitats.

California communities working to establish urban river parkways include Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Ana, Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, and Bakersfield. However, funding for urban river parkways, assistance with the passage of Proposition 84 in 2006 that sparked development of dozens of urban river parks throughout the state, has been depleted. Fewer river parkway projects will be implemented unless new funding sources are developed.

At a Sacramento news conference held along the American River Parkway in Discovery Park, which receives about 8 million visitor days per year and generates $364 million for the local economy, Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former professional athlete, noted "This report underscores what we have know for many years in Sacramento - how essential our rivers are to our health by encouraging us to get outdoors and be physically active." The mayor noted the 23-mile Parkway one of the city's "crown jewels" that attracts citizens from all walks of life that utilize it for commuting, exercising, and other physical activities.

A complete copy of the report can be found at Online