Trails are Helping Build Healthier Communities

By Evelyn Trevino, San Bernardino County Department of Public Health

San Bernardino County finds trails are an essential part of healthy communities.


The prevalence of obesity among adults in the United States has more than doubled since 1980, and the increase is even more severe among children and teens. Currently two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Because of the dramatic increase in obesity rates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime, and the New England Journal of Medicine reports the first reduction in life expectancy (5 years or more shorter in coming decades) in the nation’s history.

Responding to the obesity epidemic and its implications for the nation’s health, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity in 2001. Two of its five principles create the framework for the healthy communities movement: - Encourage environmental changes that help prevent overweight and obesity - Develop and enhance public-private partnerships to help implement this vision.

The San Bernardino County, California Board of Supervisors established its Healthy Communities initiative in April 2006, becoming one of the first counties in California to create such a program. San Bernardino County, population two million and located inland from Los Angeles, ranks poorly in many health measures: for example, San Bernardino County has the third worst heart disease death rate in California (it ranked the worst for most of the past decade). It has the worst retail food environment in California, with almost six retail sites selling unhealthy food (fast food, liquor stores) for each site selling healthy food. It is part of the most sprawling metropolitan area [Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario] in the nation, indicating a lack of town centers, poor street connectivity, and insufficient population density to support transit. This same metropolitan area is the 4th most obese in the nation.

The Redlands Conservancy works to connect residents and visitors to Redlands’ amazing open space: for health, for fun, for learning (Photo: Roger Bell).

The Redlands Conservancy works to connect residents and visitors to Redlands’ amazing open space: for health, for fun, for learning (Photo: Roger Bell).

The San Bernardino County Healthy Communities (SBHC) initiative is a countywide strategic effort to create healthy environments and promote healthful lifestyle choices. Its mission is to facilitate changes in environments and policies so that all residents have ready access to healthy food, physical activity, and health care. In partnership with literally hundreds of organizations across multiple sectors, SBHC works to ensure that healthy environments are created, promoted, and sustained.

What is a healthy community?

According to the California Center for Healthy Cities and Communities, “A Healthy City promotes a positive physical, social, and economic environment that supports the well-being of its members.” It does so through broad participation; collaborative partnerships; programs, policies, and plans; and ongoing monitoring and feedback.

A healthy community might have components such as:

  • Walkable and bikeable communities with “complete streets” designed for all modes of transport, as well as dedicated trails
  • Transportation options and access to public transit
  • Town centers, community focal points, a sense of place
  • Parks, open space, public spaces, and trails
  • Access to nutritious food
  • Recreation, nutrition, and education programs
  • Adequate housing including mixed use neighborhoods and housing choices to accommodate different life stages
  • Healthy schools with healthy nutrition and physical activity policies and practices
  • Access to appropriate health care
  • Worksite wellness initiatives.

However, a healthy community is more than these components. It is an overarching culture and environment that supports healthy living, and a community-wide mentality in which all decisions are made with deliberate consideration of the impact on residents' health. In such a culture, making the healthy choice becomes the easier choice.

How do we create a healthy community?

With the healthy communities movement literally in its infancy, SBHC has opted to work primarily towards change in local policies and practices. SBHC’s primary function is to serve as a central clearinghouse of information and resources for organizations in the county wishing to implement healthier practices. As this central point of contact, SBHC offers resources such as:

  • Comprehensive partner database to help build partnerships and bring disciplines together
  • Local health statistics to motivate communities to make changes toward healthier environments
  • Assistance in establishing baseline measures, monitoring health outcomes, and evaluating progress
  • Best practices library to provide the latest findings on tools and approaches that work
  • Assistance identifying and applying for grant funding
  • Workshops on topics such as the relationship between land use planning and health, healthy community branding and marketing, and Safe Routes to School programs and practices
  • Working directly with cities to develop Healthy City initiatives, including start-up monetary sponsorships.

SBHC has found that working directly with city governments is of utmost importance, as cities have great capacity to make environmental and policy changes that directly affect residents’ health. Three cities in San Bernardino County, namely Chino, Fontana, and Ontario, have been formal healthy city partners with SBHC since 2006. Rancho Cucamonga passed its Healthy City resolution in March 2008, and Rialto and Redlands are in the formation process. Several more of the county’s twenty-four incorporated cities and townships are taking beginning steps towards becoming healthy city partners. The city of Montclair, while not formally a SBHC partner, has had a grass roots healthy city effort through its Montclair Collaborative since 1996.

The trails connection

As SBHC works with city partners throughout the county, we hear repeatedly of cities’ desire to develop and promote trails as “safe and serene places for people to travel across the region and through our neighborhoods.” The many ambitious trail development efforts throughout the county include efforts by the cities of Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands:

Rancho Cucamonga as the lead agency, together with San Bernardino Associated Governments and surrounding cities, is developing a multi-purpose trail along the Pacific Electric Railway line. The trail links five cities across the west end of San Bernardino County, and connects to a 7-mile rail trail project in eastern Los Angeles County, creating a 21-mile east-west trail corridor. The trail is a source of great civic pride in Rancho Cucamonga, and is credited with improving health, the environment, and the local economy; increasing real estate values along the trail corridor; providing links between the trail and mass transit systems (Metrolink, bus); and promoting historic preservation through connections to historic landmarks and historical sign displays.

The City of Redlands, working in partnership with The Redlands Conservancy, promotes existing, city-approved trails and works to acquire and develop additional trails. Two current trails projects are the Redlands Heritage Trails and the Orange Blossom Trail. The Redlands Heritage Trails project seeks “to connect Redlands’ residents and visitors to Redlands’ amazing open space for health, for fun, for learning.” The project identifies ten trails encompassing sites of historic and ecological interest over more than fifteen miles.

The Orange Blossom Trail is a rail trail project that converts rail lines and flood-control areas to provides a safe path between neighborhoods, schools, the University of Redlands, downtown, parks and businesses. It also connects Redlands to the vast Santa Ana River Regional Trail. Both projects are important pieces of the “Emerald Necklace,” a comprehensive citywide open space preservation effort.

These examples, as well as many other city efforts to provide trails as a healthy transportation and recreation alternative, require resources to increase awareness of trails and to promote their use. SBHC is formulating strategies and pursuing funding to provide assistance countywide for this purpose. We envision communities’ trail networks serving as safe walking and bicycling routes for children to travel to and from school, for residents’ commutes to work and transit hubs, for access to everyday needs such as groceries, and for recreation, leisure, and exercise. As the countywide initiative striving to “create healthy environments and promote healthful lifestyle choices,” SBHC recognizes that trails can provide safe, appealing, and practical physical activity opportunities. Trails are unquestionably an essential component of a healthy community.


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