During a talk Thursday, Richard Jackson pulled up a slide showing a world map, with each country colored according to the life expectancy of its inhabitants.
Not surprisingly, the United States, with a life expectancy of 78.3, was among the darkest-colored nations -- indicating a long life span.
But the United States, as Jackson pointed out, is only ranked 50th overall -- behind countries like Andorra and the Isle of Man.
"We're ahead of Slovenia," said Jackson, chairman of the School of Health at UCLA. "There's something we're doing that's not right."
That something -- according to Jackson -- is designing communities in ways that put cars first and people second, promoting a sedentary lifestyle that contributes to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Jackson gave the keynote address Thursday for GreenTown 2011, a one-day symposium on sustainability and environmental issues held at the The Centre of Elgin. Jackson's appearance was sponsored by Elgin Community College.
In a wide-ranging discussion drawing on public policy, health care and urban planning, Jackson tried to show how the way we design our cities has a profound effect on public health.
If we ignore the ways our environment affects our health, Jackson argued, "we're for the first time looking at declining life expectancy in the U.S."
Jackson's message and the conference come at a critical time for sustainability efforts in Elgin. The city council is poised to adopt a sustainability action plan in the next two to three months.
Jackson "tied health to ... things in our everyday lives that we don't think are connected," recently re-elected city Councilman F. John Steffen said. "We have the perfect opportunity to reconsider what we've done and what we're going to do."
Based on the what Jackson has seen, Elgin officials are on the right track. Although there needs to be a greater emphasis on public education and grass-roots efforts, he said.
"Elgin is on the cutting edge of re-envisioning what the 21st Century American community should look like," Jackson said, addressing four Elgin High School students after his presentation. "Elgin doesn't have it perfect, but there are a lot of positive signs."
He added: "The places that succeed, like the people who succeed, are those that have a vision."