The town of San Fernando in northwest Los Angeles County originally grew up around a railroad stop in the 1800s, long before freeways were invented. But change came rapidly, and today the city is an island surrounded by major freeways; even within neighborhoods, high-speed thoroughfares dominate.
Against all odds, city leaders are now finding ways to put pedestrians first—to slow drivers down or get them out of their cars all together.
“The city inherited this legacy of a car-oriented, drive-through culture and over the years quality of life started declining,” says Steve Veres, a City Council Member since 2003 who served a one-year term as mayor in 2009. “But as an older city, San Fernando still has the bones of a downtown area that is naturally walkable. We’ve just had to find ways to strengthen that.”
A member of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and a passionate advocate for reviving urbanism, Veres helped lead the development of pedestrian improvements along city streets in addition to new parks and recreation centers. He has played a leadership role in NALEO’s Healthy Communities Initiative sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) as part of its national program, Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC). LHC is designed to support local and state government leaders nationwide in their efforts to reduce childhood obesity through public policies that promote active living, healthy eating and access to healthy foods.
San Fernando is a predominantly working class city whose population of approximately 24,000 is nearly 90 percent Latino.
A galvanizing moment in the city’s shift toward prioritizing physical activity came when California Physical Fitness Test results (collected in 2001) showed that 5th, 7th and 9th graders in the East San Fernando Valley, which includes the City of San Fernando, had one of the highest percentages in the state (over 35 percent) of children who were at an unhealthy weight, and the second-highest percentage (more than 53 percent) of children who were not physically fit.
Since then, city leaders have been actively working to make changes in targeted areas of the city, aimed at overcoming a historical lack of opportunities for physical activity. A centerpiece of their efforts is Heritage Park, a three-acre plot of land that is the city’s first new park in nearly 30 years.
“It was originally designed as a passive park, without physical exercise in mind,” says Veres. “But we redesigned it to be specifically for walking.” Landscaped with native, drought-resistant California plants, the park features a walking path that enables parents to do quarter-mile laps while their children attend classes in the park’s community room.
“The paths are covered in decomposed granite on compacted soil, which has a little give and is easier on the knees than hard pavement,” Veres explains.
Adriana Gomez, chair of the San Fernando Parks and Recreation Commission, has lived in the city for 22 years.
“As a resident, I love Heritage Park,” says Gomez. “You can bring your kids, push a stroller, walk your dog.”
When her doctor informed her several months ago that her cholesterol and triglycerides were high, she immediately stepped up her level of daily physical activity. “I’m now walking to work twice a week, and a group of us at the office started to walk at lunch. I also started running and using my bike. For me it’s been a radical change. I’ve lost 10 pounds since then.”
Enhancements designed to encourage walking are visible in many parts of San Fernando. City codes have been changed to allow outdoor seating and dining along sidewalks, making areas more pedestrian-friendly and increasing patronage of downtown restaurants. Along Maclay Avenue, four lanes of traffic were reduced to two, and the speed limit was reduced from 35 to 15 mph. Also, sidewalk benches and trash cans were installed, contributing to a safer, more inviting pedestrian experience.
“My father walks five miles a day, including down Maclay,” says Gomez. “He’s 74 and lives in senior housing, and walking is really important to him. He complains that other streets are not as nice to walk on as Maclay.”
The city has also embarked on a master plan for bikeability. An avid cyclist, Council Member Veres occasionally makes the 28-mile commute from his home to work on two wheels.
“Before I get into the office, I’ve been by three and sometimes four different city parks, checking up on things,” he says. “Along the way I use my iPhone to photograph and GPS code graffiti and report it directly to our public works department.”
Unfortunately the budget crisis is taking its toll on many of the city’s efforts to create a healthier environment. “In the shorter term, some projects are on hold as we weather the budget storm,” says Veres, “but the infrastructure and desire are now in place, and the big-picture planning process continues.”
Residents themselves are increasingly invested in the city’s new direction. “The more people experience these changes, the more it changes their view,” says Gomez. “They want to continue moving toward more health-oriented development.”