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Center for a Livable Future


May 9, 2014

We Are What We Eat…and What We Build

Speaker Richard J. Jackson, MD, MPH, FAAP
The Center for a Livable Future and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences Grand Rounds bring you the 14th Annual Edward & Nancy Dodge Lecture

Program Brochure   |   Flyer  |  Interview with Richard Jackson Event Video

Interview with Richard J. Jackson



Richard Jackson’s epiphany came to him in his car on a seven-lane highway, as he watched an elderly woman attempt to cross the street. It was a summer day in Atlanta, and the woman was stooped as she carried a bag of groceries in each hand. If she has a heart attack, he thought, her death would be classified as heat stroke. If she gets hit by a car, her death would be classed as an automobile accident. But the real cause of death would be a lack of public transportation, lack of sidewalks, and poor access to supermarkets.

His epiphany was this: when we talk about health on the cellular level, we’re talking about things that are too far away. “We should be talking about things people care about,” he said. “People care about what kind of places their kids live in, and where their parents live.”

A guest of the Center for a Livable Future and the featured speaker of the 14th Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Richard Jackson addressed the public health implications of the built environment. The chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health–UCLA, Jackson gave a talk titled, “We Are What We Eat … and What We Build.”

A veteran pediatrician and epidemiologist, Jackson focused on the intersection of public health and urban planning. “Our young people are really struggling with the world they’re living in,” he said. In the time that he’s been practicing medicine, he’s seen obesity, diabetes, and depression soar. At the same time, the percentage of the Gross Domestic Product that the U.S. spends on health care has risen to 19 percent. Our health care isn’t working, he says. These struggles have not only economic and medical origins, but also environmental.

“The best approach I know of for preventing and treating diabetes,” he said, “is to eat less and walk more.” And yet, as a nation, we’re building homes in which the garage is king and that are far from city centers. “We took finest farmland in the U.S. and put it into housing,” he said. The resulting commutes are making people unhealthy and unhappy. “Commutes are killing us,” he said.

The good news, says Jackson, is that architects and designers are beginning to incorporate health considerations into how they build homes, offices, and even cities. Some of the “second-tier” cities, Oklahoma City and Tampa for example, are finding success at re-designing themselves to healthy communities that encourage outdoor activity, reduce automobile use, and promote social structure. New York’s High-Line is a shining example of a development project that promotes healthy activities while drawing tourists.  

“Homebuyers want walkable, bikeable communities,” he said. We’re being to realize that there is no distinction between personal health and sustainable development.

—Christine Grillo

Richard J. Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Joseph Jackson is Professor and Chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles. A pediatrician, he has served in many leadership positions in both environmental health and infectious disease with the California Health Department, including the highest as the State Health Officer. For nine years he was Director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta and received the Presidential Distinguished Service award. In October, 2011 he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

While in California he helped establish the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program and state and national laws to reduce risks from pesticides, especially to farm workers and to children. While at CDC he established the national asthma epidemiology and control program, oversaw the childhood lead poisoning prevention program, and instituted the federal effort to “biomonitor” chemical levels in the US population. He has received the Breast Cancer Fund’s Hero Award, as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Public Health Law Association, and the New Partners for Smart Growth. In October, 2012 he received the John Heinz Award for Leadership in the Environment. In fall of 2013 he was the Tisch Distinguished Public Health Fellow at Roosevelt House in Manhattan.

Dick Jackson lectures and speaks on many issues, particularly those related to built environment and health. He co-authored two Island Press Books: Urban Sprawl and Public Health in 2004 and Making Healthy Places in 2011. He is host of a 2012 public television series Designing Healthy Communities which links to the J Wiley & Sons book by the same name published in October, 2011. He has served on many environmental and health boards, as well as the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects. He is an elected honorary member of both the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects. Richard Jackson is married to Joan Guilford Jackson; they have three grown children and one grandchild.