Active Design Needs Active Communities, Part I: Sacramento

This post is the first in a two-part series highlighting two exceptional Plan4Health projects: one in Sacramento, California, and one in Pierce County, Washington. These communities may be more than 700 miles apart, but they are united in the shared goal of building healthy communities through principles of active design. Each project has unlocked the secret to successful planning for public health: civic engagement.


“Active design is an approach to the design of communities that promotes physical activity,” explains Kirin Kumar, project manager at WALKSacramento. The non-profit community organization spearheads Design 4 Active Sacramento (D4AS), a Plan4Health grantee which brings together engineers, planners, and public health professionals to create safer, more active communities. The program recently won an excellence award from the Center for Active Design for successfully incorporating active design-oriented language into the county’s zoning code and design guidelines.

As they were working through the Plan4Health grant, WALKSacramento was contacted by the Center for Cities + Schools at UC Berkeley, which works to involve local school leaders and students in the city planning process. One of CC+S’s programs, Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now!), engages high school students in the planning process by providing teachers with planning-themed curricula and then allowing students to identify problems and solutions where they live. It culminates with students working with local leaders to fix these problems through consulting projects.

Students conducting a walk audit. Photo by Kirin Kumar, WALKSacramento.

WALKSacramento had never worked with high-school aged youth in this manner before, but they decided to pilot the program in two regional high schools with public health tracks. At first, the students seemed caught up in traditional public health approaches focused on food and exercise, but WALKSacramento encouraged the Y-PLAN participants to explore the influences of the built environment. The students performed walk audits and evaluated how the negative perceptions of safety and lack of infrastructure in their neighborhoods could impact public health.

The projects were so successful that some of them continued even after the school year was done. One group presented their project to the Sacramento Bike Advisory Coalition. Another contacted Regional Transit officials with their ideas on how to improve bus stops in the area. Hours later, wheels were in motion to provide new seating and clear the growth at bus stops in the area.

Students sharing their final project. Photo by Kirin Kumar, WALKSacramento.

Students also often build powerful relationships with the adults they meet through their efforts, which helps them develop into the next generations of community leaders. “Between 75 and 80 percent of the students [in Y-PLAN] who graduate will stay in their communities,” Kumar explains. “It is important that they feel comfortable reaching out about the projects that are important to them.”

D4AS’s civic outreach extends across multiple generations. In another attempt to engage with a broader swath of community members, the D4AS coalition partnered with AARP and other built environment advocates including the Sacramento Housing Alliance, the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, and Breathe California, Emigrant Trails to hold an open forum during a mayoral election year to discuss ways to advance livability in Sacramento. The forum had special focus on the issues that face elderly people in city planning, including access to transportation and homelessness.

Sacramento mayoral candidates presenting at the AARP conference. Photo by AARP.

Citizens who fall to the wayside in the planning process often know their communities best — their needs, their resources, and their visions for the future. “Intentional civic engagement gives a voice to those who otherwise might not have been heard,” Kumar concludes. Everyone’s voice is important when it comes to planning healthier communities — young and old.

Top image: Students on a walk audit. Photo by Kirin Kumar, WALKSacramento.


About the Author
Samantha Schipani is APA's Great Places in America communications intern.

October 21, 2016

By Samantha Schipani