San Francisco Bay Chapter Sierra Club

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Healthy, Sustainable Communities

What is a healthy community?

The answer is complex. Sometimes, focusing on human health, we mean a community with a minimum of disease and injuries, where the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe for drinking and swimming and for fishing-people to eat their catch. The people who most often bear the brunt of unhealthy conditions tend to be poor and members of minority groups, and so healthy communities require attention to environmental justice.

Emphasizing ecological health, we mean a community where plants and animals, especially the native ones, can survive and thrive even with the humans.

Intertwined with both kinds of health is sustainability: living in a way that meets "present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).

Key Determinants of Health and Sustainability

A key determinant of health and sustainability is local land use. That's why mobilizing communities to stop sprawl is so high on the Sierra Club agenda, both here in the Bay Chapter and nationally.

  • When we keep development off of agricultural lands, we're not just preserving a local greenbelt-we're also protecting irreplaceable soils needed to feed the world's population.
  • When we save habitat for local California species, we're sustaining one of the planet's great biodiversity hotspots.
  • When we prevent automobile-oriented development, we're not just avoiding local traffic and smog-we're also cutting down on the emission of greenhouse gases that are changing the earth's climate.
  • When we block expansion of suburbs, we're channeling growth inward where it can help revive rather than undermine our cities.

In short, local efforts to stop sprawl will help determine the nature of life-for people and for all organisms, for centuries if not eons to come.

Another key determinant is transportation.

  • Cars and trucks are important consumers of energy and major sources of air and water pollution.
  • The placement of roads and transit stations is one of the main shapers of development patterns-of compact cities or sprawl. Conversely, when services such as shopping are located near transit and near safe walking and biking routes, use of cars is reduced.
  • Roads harm wildlife in many ways, including through roadkills, disturbance, and fragmentation of habitat.
  • Transportation is a great shaper of quality of life. Noisy, polluting freeways wreak havoc on adjacent communities. Transit availability can enable people to get to the places they need to go - or can isolate people in inaccessibility. Poor and minority communities have often received the greatest harm and the least support from transportation policy.

And so the Sierra Club takes stands on many aspects of transportation policy:

  • supporting transit, bicycles, and walking, rather than cars and highways;
  • seeking the most cost-effective use of transit funding among different modes and locations;
  • integrating transportation with land use;
  • supporting improved automobile gas mileage;
  • advocating environmental justice in transportation services.

Regional Transportation Plan

Every three or four years MTC updates its long-range Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Each time, the Sierra Club and many others provide extensive comments on how to make the plan and its results better—to improve air quality, increase usage of mass transit, and reduce dependence on the single-occupant automobile—yet improvements have been slow and minimal. A lot is at stake: over the life of the next RTP, Bay Area public agencies will spend more than $200 billion of public funds on transportation capital projects and operating programs. A potentially important new provision in state law SB 375 requires that the RTP be written to cut greenhouse-gas emissions through a "sustainable communities strategy" that should integrate land-use planning and transportation for the Bay Area.

» For more, see our Transportation page