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Sidewalk, Streetlight Improvements Could Bring Healthier Future To City Heights

The lamp of a streetlight is seen against a cloudy sky, Nov. 15, 2017.

Photo by Guillermo Sevilla

Above: The lamp of a streetlight is seen against a cloudy sky, Nov. 15, 2017.

Where there was once mostly darkness, there are now 132 new streetlights lining the roads in San Diego's City Heights community. That's along with 3,500 feet of additional or replaced sidewalks.

Community activist Esperanza Gonzales said she has spent more than a decade fighting for the new amenities.

“I walk everywhere, and I noticed by doing that this area doesn’t have sidewalks, doesn’t have lights," Gonzales said. "There are a lot of parents that aren’t able to take kids to school themselves, so the kids go alone and they’re sometimes there walking in the dark.”

The improvements are a cause for celebration after years of advocacy and may bring more than well-lit walkways to an area that suffers from large pockets of poverty and low rates of health coverage compared to the rest of San Diego County.

Previously, the area didn’t meet the city’s standards on required streetlights and sidewalks, according to Civic San Diego. The city's development nonprofit took over the project after the dissolution of redevelopment in 2012. Construction on the $4 million improvements, which were paid with bond revenues, began last October.

The nonprofit City Heights Community Development Corporation’s Anastasia Brewster said the project’s completion now means safe corridors for the underserved community.

“This is a very pedestrianized neighborhood with low car ownership rates and pretty young families so lots of students, lots of seniors are using these sidewalks to get to where they need to go," Brewster said.

Tarryn Mento,

The upgrades may also boost life longevity in the low-income region, which has a lower life expectancy than more affluent communities bordering it to the north and west, according to an online tool from The California Endowment. A peer-reviewed study focusing on Louisville, Kentucky that was published in 2016 found a more walkable community could mean fewer years of potential life lost.

Study co-author William Riggs, a professor at University of San Francisco, said this creates positive outcomes for individuals, which helps address chronic preventable diseases, resulting in benefits to the larger community.

"Investing in certain areas that are potentially at-risk or that have what have been traditionally marginalized populations is a benefit to regions not only from a job accessibility, economic regeneration standpoint, but also from a cost-reduction and cost-deferral standpoint in terms of societal costs," said Riggs, who has also researched the connection between transportation diversity and health in more than 100 metro areas.

However, he said increased investment in underserved communities can be coupled with adverse effects, such as displacing lower-income residents.

"I mean that's where if I was to make policy recommendations for this kind of community, not knowing the situation at all, it's to: at the same time you're considering re-investment, consider how you maintain the historic population that's been residing in that neighborhood," Riggs said.

The improvements will be officially unveiled with a lighting ceremony at sundown Friday. It’s also to celebrate the longtime efforts by community members like Gonzales. However, she said there’s still much more to do.

“Keep fighting for lights and sidewalks," she said.

A spokesman for Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, who represents the area, said other parts of City Heights are likely also out of compliance with San Diego standards.

Civic San Diego said there are more funds leftover from the bond revenues and it will consult with the community on how best to spend them.

Street enhancements in San Diego's City Heights community may bring more than just well-lit pathways to the underserved area.

The California Endowment also supports City Heights coverage by KPBS.

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