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Palo Alto looks to hone, expand health programs

City Council moves ahead with 'aspirational' resolution to promote more physical activity, food access

Palo Alto's newest official priority is tricky to define and difficult to oppose.

Dubbed "Healthy Cities/Healthy Community," the priority was adopted by the City Council at the January retreat but has languished away from the public eye ever since, despite the fact that it touches on just about every policy decision that the council and staff have taken, from bike projects to vending machines at City Hall.

On Monday night, the council agreed that "Healthy Cities" should be more than just a feel-good priority, though feeling good is undoubtedly a critical component. To that end, council members voiced unanimous support for adopting a resolution that commits officials to building a "healthy city and healthy community."

The resolution, which is still subject to some revision, will focus on four areas: healthy culture, healthy environment, healthy food access and healthy workplace.

It includes 28 different commitments, ranging from broad and vague ("promote the connection between health and happiness" and "support emotional and mental well-being") to practical and specific ("accommodate breastfeeding employees upon their return from work" and "encourage walking to meetings and use of stairway").

Rob De Geus, director of the Community Services Department, said the concept of "Healthy Cities" dates back to 1986, when the World Health Organization adopted an initiative in Europe defining a healthy city as "a city that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and to develop their maximum potential."

The League of California Cities has been running its own campaign, called "Healthy Eating, Active Living," which has received resolutions of endorsement from 180 cities in the state.

Now, Palo Alto is looking to join the fray and to put its own imprint on the movement. The resolution that the City Council discussed Monday was the first significant step in this effort.

Championed by Mayor Karen Holman and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, the "Healthy Cities" priority has not received the type of attention the council has devoted to such as parking, traffic and infrastructure issues.

Yet, as staff reported Monday, things have been brewing behind the scenes. Since spring, a committee of stakeholders has been meeting every month to discuss ways to promote healthy living.

In addition to city staff, the group included local commissioners and officials from Stanford University, local nonprofits, the Palo Alto Unified School District and citizen groups.

By Palo Alto's standards, the process has been unusually opaque. The meetings have not been publicized and the committee's work has taken place with little input from either the council or the broader community.

Holman and Kniss, who participated in the group's early activities, effectively functioned like an ad hoc committee whose creation the full council never discussed, much less authorized. And while staff reports typically get released 10 days before a council meeting, the one prepared for the Monday discussion wasn't made public until late Thursday, four days before the meeting.

Councilman Tom DuBois was one of several council members who on Monday expressed concern about how this item was handled, noting that he wasn't even aware that the citizens committee existed.

"I do object to the process and would like it to be more transparent," DuBois said.

Yet DuBois joined the rest of his colleagues in generally praising the work that had taken place behind the scenes. The resolution, he said, "seems to build on a lot of the things we're already doing, which makes a lot of sense."

Like DuBois, Councilman Pat Burt praised the product while panning the process by which the work was produced.

"We appear to have had an ad hoc committee of the council and a community committee that the council didn't know diddly about," Burt said. "And that's really not how we would normally do things.

"It doesn't mean the product was bad as a result. It does create questions," he added.

The council voted unanimously to send the proposed resolution to its Policy and Services Committee for further refinement, before the document returns to the full council for adoption. One of the things that the committee will do is make the resolution more "aspirational" and less proscriptive when it comes to health initiatives.

This change in tone was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff, who took issue with the language in the resolution committing the city to "make every effort" to promote the dozens of health-related policies. Scharff suggested that staff use words like "strive" to make clear that the policies in the resolution represent the council's direction without constituting any legal commitments.

He also proposed having city staff make these revisions before returning it to the full council for adoption. That proposal fizzled by a 2-7 vote, with Eric Filseth joining Scharff and the rest of the council opting to send it to the committee for more discussion.

The proposed resolution incorporates three of the focus areas that are recommended by the League of Cities: healthy environment (which pertains to planning and capital projects that promote walking, biking and access to nature), healthy food access and healthy workplace (which would focus on City Hall employees).

To these three, the citizen committee agreed to add a fourth: healthy culture. According to a Community Services Department staff report, this pertains to "elements of healthy that support the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of the community."

"A healthy culture encourages expressions of creativity, supports an environment of inclusivity and kindness, and ultimately creates the connection between health and happiness," the report states.

Specific policies within this focus area include creating opportunities for "healthy aging" and "aging in place"; supporting access to museums, galleries and events; promoting "awareness and compassion for the unhoused"; and improving access and awareness to mental health support and education.

Holman stressed that the resolution doesn't seek to "dictate that we'll do all these things." She also said that the committee agreed that while the city can't do all the things in the resolution, it can "set an example and partner with members of the community to do these things."

This will mean reaching out to the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to discuss cutting-edge initiatives for boosting employee health and wellness. This also includes an annual Health Fair, an event that the city held on Sept. 26 with participation from more than two dozen local nonprofits.

The resolution, Holman said, "is trying to cover the gaps, and fill the gaps where we don't do as good a job as we could."

Kniss, for her part, noted that the committee's work confirmed that when it comes to healthy living, Palo Alto already does pretty well. Many cities, she said, struggle with access to fresh food or experience harsh weather that makes it harder for residents to get outdoor exercise.

Palo Alto has no such problems, she said. Instead, it boasts a "supportive community" and a thriving bike culture.

"One of the things we've done here is acknowledge that we're already a pretty healthy and pretty fortunate city," Kniss said.

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6 people like this
Posted by Low Hanging Fruits and Vegetables
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 7:58 am

We're also pretty healthy from a de facto exclusion of the sick and disabled. They could start by remembering that disability is part of inclusionary housing, and stop approving new housing that can only be lived in or visited by people without mobility limitations.

Many people can't bike. We have the most pathetic excuse for a sidewalk network, and building rules especially on El Camino that all but ensure we never will.

What about healthy schools? Kids spend most of their day in school. The City could go a long way using their bully pulpit to encourage PAUSD to pay a little more than lip service to creating healthy schools.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 8:18 am

I'm all for healthy living options.

I am particularly disappointed at the number of junk food stores around, cupcakes, frozen desserts, etc. I miss some of the restaurants that had salad bars, have these gone out of fashion?

I love stopping in to Piazzas for their salad bar as a take out lunch. Can't we promote some more salad bar style places instead of the junk desserts?

I know it is market driven, but perhaps if we could award restaurants with "healthy eating" stickers or something to drive home the point it may make a difference.

18 people like this
Posted by Leanne
a resident of University South
on Oct 27, 2015 at 9:34 am

This town is becoming more unhealthy each and everyday as we add more and more people. The density has added more noise pollution and air pollution. How about focusing on issues such as leaf blowers, airplane noise, car exhaust, and smoking in apartments and condominiums. All of these are directly affecting our health and it seems like the city council is not taking these health concerns seriously.

Like this comment
Posted by Ed Klinenberg
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

Your article today about Healthy Palo Alto, reporting on some activities by some members of the Palo Alto government, provides some excellent info for the community. There is another important item that your readers should also know about: on Saturday, September 26, there was a comprehensive Community Health Fair held at Mitchell Park. This event was conceived by the YMCA of Palo Alto. We initially enlisted the participation and support of the City of Palo Alto, Stanford Children's Health, and Stanford Health. We then expanded it to include some 27 non-profits in Palo Alto that provide a wide range of services related to health issues of all kinds. Mayor Karen Holman officially opened the Health Fair at 9:50 a.m. on September 26, and she also made some closing remarks to thank participants and attendees at 3 pm as the Health Fair completed its one-day mission. The City of Palo Alto provided lots of important support for this Community Health Fair.
Many Palo Alto residents benefited from several doctors' talks, one-on-one discussions with doctors (general info, not medical appointments), the Safety Town provided by Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, and many other informational activities and displays.
As the organization that initiated this major event, the YMCA of Palo Alto is proud to serve as a local leader for focusing attention on the importance of healthy living. The many YMCA committee members who planned and launched this 2015 Health Fair feel that it served as an excellent model for future such events that will help the City of Palo Alto promote good health as a year-around goal for all of us!
---Ed Klinenberg, Member of the YMCA of Palo Alto Board of Managers, and a member of
the 2015 Community Health Fair Committee

5 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 27, 2015 at 11:41 am

>How about focusing on issues such as leaf blowers,....

Excellent point. The leaf blower ban in residential neighborhoods was never meant to be enforced. It was purposely described, and passed, as "complaint based"...which is code for no actual enforcement. It could easily be tweaked to eliminate the "complaint based" element, as well as to assess fines against the property owner, as well as the violator with the gas=powered blower in hand.

From a health perspective, leaf blowers should just be banned from the city, period (including commercial zones), but still allowing vacuum type devices with proper filters. The dust from leaf blowers is a true health hazard to those with asthma and other lung issues. Yet our city council just shrugs it off. Perhaps Holman and Kniss can lead this effort.

3 people like this
Posted by voter
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm

For those of you that don't know, the leaf blower ordinance is a noise based, not a dust/asthma based ordinance. There is so much noise in Palo Alto from traffic and construction that a leaf blower is the least of the culprits. I am sick and tired of being told what to do on my private property. I love my gas powered leaf blower. It allows me to have a cleaner property and to more easily get rid of all of the trash that the public tosses into my plants, without having to touch other people's grime and germs.

3 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 27, 2015 at 1:05 pm

>For those of you that don't know, the leaf blower ordinance is a noise based, not a dust/asthma based ordinance.

In terms of this thread, yes and no. The gas-powered leaf blowers ban is a very big noise issue...and it is not being enforced; however, this thread is about the health issues in general...dust is a VERY BIG issue for those at risk. I raised an asthmatic child, and I spent way too many nights in the emergency room...yes, dust was one the issues. Economists like to describe such issues as 'externalities' ...but try to tell that to your child when he/she cannot get enough air in their lungs.

Your gas-powered leaf blower needs to go. The rest of us should not have to put up with it. Use a rake, broom and litter picker...I do.

3 people like this
Posted by Seth
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 27, 2015 at 3:00 pm

@Craig Laughton, I agree with you. You are a local rebel, and I don't always it see it your way, but you are right on this one! Our city needs to eliminate the leaf blowers, starting with the gas powered ones, and the "complaint based" nonsense needs to go!

Come on, city council, get with it.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 3:13 pm

This thread is about healthy living, not leaf blowers.

I don't think this is the place to debate them, we have had debates about this long enough and I for one would like to read about making healthy living in Palo Alto about food and exercise, not leaf blowers. Start another thread if you must.

Please take these comments elsewhere. Thank you.

Now to get back to healthy eating and exercise...

9 people like this
Posted by Asthma is no joke
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 4:05 pm

You think controlling asthma is not about healthy living? You might want to read the following article from a former editor of Consumer Reports:
Web Link

"Leaf blowers don’t just blow away leaves and lawn clippings, their 180- to 200-mph air output blasts away topsoil, microbial life forms, animal waste, allergic fungi, spores, herbicides, pesticides, and even heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. This toxic cocktail of engine emissions and dust particulates can exacerbate allergies and asthma in children and adults, and aggravate acute pulmonary disorders such as COPD (chronic bronchitis and emphysema) and pulmonary fibrosis in adults and the elderly. Leaf blower pollutants are so bad the American Lung Association recommends that all individuals avoid them.​"

Web Link

Asthma affects around 10-20% of Palo Alto children, and a goodly fraction of adults. It is responsible for significant percentage of illness, missed school, emergency room visits, and impacts whether kids can engage in the kinds of exercise this health initiative would advocate. According to the CDPH,"asthma results in an estimated 11.8 million days of work/usual activities missed per year among adults " "Approximately 129,000 children with current asthma (52.3%) missed school or day care because of their asthma at some point in the past year. This translates to an estimated 1.2 million days of school/day care missed per year."

You can control what you eat and the amount of exercise you get. But you can't control the crap (literally) your neighbor puts into the air you breathe. Leaf blowers and other asthmagenic civic problems are an important part of healthy living discussion. In fact, they are probably more important to deal with head on in an initiative like this BECAUSE of the pushback.

I would say dealing with the environment in schools is probably a greater issue to asthma, though, at least in kids.

4 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 27, 2015 at 4:28 pm

>This thread is about healthy living, not leaf blowers.

Leaf blowers contribute, on a regular basis, to unhealthy living in Palo Alto. No rational discussion of healthy living in this town can ignore leaf blowers.

Our city council needs to face this issue head on.

1 person likes this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> Article (para 6th from end): Holman stressed that the resolution doesn't seek to "dictate that we'll do all these things." She also said that the committee agreed that while the city can't do all the things in the resolution, it can "set an example and partner with members of the community to do these things."

As I interpret this *resolution*, what is most important is that the City of Palo Alto be able to *say* that it supports "healthy living", and not that it identify what would be useful and appropriate for City Hall to do. In fact, the subsequent paragraph report Council member Kniss focusing on the various things that Palo Alto doesn't need to do.

So we had a committee that sat around in lots of meetings and a primary result is to encourage many additional meetings ("partner" is bureaucrat-ese for holding meetings with other groups). So were the negative health impacts of increased sitting by the participants offset by the positive effects of being affirmed by socializing with like-minded people and not having to deal with the stress of having their beliefs challenged?

2 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Given that the city does not enforce healthy living laws already on the books -- such as the bans on gasoline-powered leaf blowers and smoking on downtown streets -- there is little reason to believe this initiative will provide tangible benefits.

Note. While the specifics are yet to be determined, a recent article in Fortune suggests corporate-type wellness programs have been largely unsuccessful around the Silicon Valley. See Web Link

I'm all for wellness. I'm all about the exercise and clean eating. But I'd rather see City Hall focus on the issues we elected them to address. And I definitely don't want to see any more secret planning sessions -- Mayor Holman and Council Member Kniss should face some kind of reprimand.

2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Oct 27, 2015 at 8:11 pm

@Douglas Moran

"...not having to deal with the stress of having their beliefs challenged?"

Preposterous, I find it hard to believe that anyone is that thin skinned!

8 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 27, 2015 at 11:18 pm

The best thing this city can do for the health and happiness of its residents is to halt growth. This will have the effect of stabilizing the population which will then allow the city of focus on our environment. Without constant growth we can improve our roads, use funds to add to park space, support greening our city with more trees, and concentrate on using less carbon as we transition to renewable resources. When we are constantly chasing the growth ideology the environment suffers. With no growth we can concentrate and making what we have the best. Schools will be better, the environment we live in can be made sustainable, and we won't be stressed out like overcrowded rats in a maze that we can't get out of.

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