Participants in Thursday’s inaugural Healthy Communities Forum tackled how to create walkable neighborhoods and change negative attitudes toward development.
The forums use interactive technology to explore the economic, environmental and social health of local cities.
“I’ve always been an advocate for communities really being community,” said San Mateo Mayor Jack Matthews in opening remarks. “Someday I hope we are going to have a plaza in our downtown. I’m very jealous of Redwood City.”
Don Weden, retired Santa Clara County principal planner, was the forum’s featured speaker.
Weden said planning pedestrian-friendly communities where residents are less reliant on their cars for transportation is one way to meet the challenges of an aging population and rising gas prices.
By 2030, a quarter of San Mateo County residents will be older than 65, Weden said. “We have not experienced what it’s like to have that large of a senior population,” he said.
Living in the suburbs and not near shopping or services could hinder seniors from having an active and independent lifestyle, Weden said.
Citing a study, he said seniors who don’t drive take 12 percent fewer trips to the doctor and 60 percent fewer trips for shopping. This results in less money coming to local stores and restaurants, Weden said.
“The social health and economic health of our community often overlaps,” he said.
In addition, 1 out of 3 seniors living in high-density neighborhoods went on walks compared to 1 out of 14 seniors in low-density neighborhoods, he said.
With one third of the country’s workforce represented by Baby Boomers, Weden said cities must plan to build housing for the workers to replace the retirees and homes for the healthcare workers that serve seniors.
Rising gas prices are another obstacle that local economies will face, he said.
“We could not have suburbia if we did not have cheap oil,” Weden said.
But with no more cheap oil and environmental issues looming, he said the planning landscape is now shifting from a suburban to an urban paradigm.
Weden said cities need to selectively increase housing densities and create livable, green and urban neighborhoods. “We are going to need to learn how to do urban well,” he said.
Springing from Weden’s presentation, attendants split into groups to discuss steps forward to reaching this goal.
One group discussed how to win over people who are resistant to growth and development.
San Mateo Planning Commissioner Chris Massey said long-term residents tend to come out and oppose housing projects.
The group also discussed how to change media images and redefine the American dream of owning a home and a car.
The group’s ideas were summarized and projected onto the presentation screen and attendants voted for which concepts resonated with them most using remote controls.
The winning idea for this group was telling those resistant to growth what’s in it for them and painting a positive vision for the future.
Megan Fluke, grassroots organizer for the Sierra Club, said organizers are planning additional forums on topics, including public health, local economies and housing.
The next forum is focused on transportation and is scheduled for May 25 in Redwood City. The featured speaker will be Redwood City Councilwoman Barbara Pierce.