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Planner blames obesity on sidewalk shortage

Tyler Graf
Dolan Media Newswires

Portland, OR – Sometimes, a neighborhood’s street layout can be harmful to public health.

That’s why the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is undertaking the Southeast 122nd Avenue pilot project, a study of the land-use, transportation and connectivity problems in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood and how they affect residents’ health.

Planners and public health advocates alike say the Southeast Portland neighborhood lacks sufficient through streets, sidewalks and paved roads, and that those deficiencies lead to obesity in residents and navigational problems for drivers of emergency vehicles.

“(Powellhurst-Gilbert) doesn’t have the sidewalks, commercial services or gathering places that other neighborhoods do,” said Barry Manning, who is leading the project for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “We don’t think this is conducive to healthy living.”

Residents are relieved to know the project is under way, said Mark White, president of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association.

White, an eight-year neighborhood resident, said the current layout is sprawling and unconnected. Emergency vehicles, he said, struggle with the roads.

White witnessed it firsthand on May 31, he said, when Jefferson High School senior Borisshell Washington was shot and killed in Raymond Park, just blocks from White’s house. White said he heard the shot and the sirens that followed, and then rushed out of his home and saw an ambulance and fire engine creeping toward the park.

The drivers seemed lost, he said, because their emergency vehicles turned around and onto another road before returning and finally reaching the park.

“It’s not good to put so many (people) into a place that has poor connectivity for vehicles,” White said.

He said he believes much of the damage in the neighborhood has already been done and that it will take close to a decade for any improvements to take place.

But Manning said the project study will lead to more formal plans in 2010.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability this summer received a grant from the Northwest Health Foundation to continue studying health issues. The foundation has already determined Powellhurst-Gilbert residents are the most obese in the city, and the foundation wants to work with the bureau to change that.

Chris Kabel, the program officer at the Northwest Health Foundation, said there are more partnerships between planners and public health officials today than in the past.

“For the most part, health has never been an explicit goal of planners,” he said. “This is something that we feel the city can take a lead on.”

There’s compelling evidence that land use and transportation influence health, Kabel said. They affect whether a person chooses to walk, bike or drive. They affect where people buy food. They also affect which doctors, if any, people see.

Most of the neighborhood’s problems, Manning said, date back to when it was part of unincorporated Multnomah County.

Before the city annexed the neighborhood, development was suburban and semi-rural. The neighborhood was characterized by low-density development on large lots, with spotty apartment complexes in outlying areas and commercial services only at major street intersections.

Then, in 1996, the city rezoned the area to make it denser, resulting in an infill building boom.

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