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Walkable Communities

posted on January 8, 2008 at 5:41 PM

One of the frequent challenges issued to voters by Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is to look at their third-grade class pictures and then to walk into any school in Iowa and compare the number of overweight children with those of previous generations. Now, Huckabee said the crisis of obesity would then become apparent if we did that.

Forty years ago at least half of school-aged children walked or biked a mile to school. Today the number is about 15 percent. There are myriad reasons for this trend, but the fact remains that kids don’t walk as much as they once did.

There is, though, an emerging movement to make communities more walk-able. It is a blend of strategy, infrastructure, and government incentive.

The Safe Routes to School Program is a five-year, $600-million federal project whose funds are distributed via state grants. This year’s grants are to be announced tomorrow. Mark Fenton, the host of the PBS series “America’s Walking” is an advocate of such projects. In fact, as he told us on a recent visit to Iowa that he’s an advocate of any project that gets us moving.

Fenton: There's a very clear message and most Americans have heard this, that we have to be more physically active. The Surgeon General came out with a report in 1996. Now, that's over a decade ago, many of us forget, that defined with the minimal amount we should all do. It said, look, at least get 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

If you do that, you're going to reduce your risk for all the things that kill us now: cardiovascular disease, the number one killer of men and women in America; Type II diabetes; osteoporosis, which many people don't realize is a killer. You break a hip as an older person, you're relegated to bed, you might die of pneumonia or a complication, but in the end it was your physical inactivity and those brittle bones that really lead to that demise.

I've realize that we've, over the last forty or fifty years, have been designing America primarily for the automobile. The way we build our cities and towns we think first about moving ourselves around in cars, and we forgot much of what we did really well in the first half of the century, which was build towns that were great for walking and even bicycling. And we forgot that in part because we got used to the mobility of modern American life. We needed the freedom to be able to go explore the countryside and so on.

But the down side of that is that we've made it actually hard, even dangerous to go walk to the corner store, for our kids to walk to school, for our aging parents who don't drive anymore to be able to walk to the pharmacy. All that stuff is really hard to do now. So when I say I am a vocal pedestrian advocate, it's because we need to give voice to the notion that livable communities or public communities where it’s much easier to walk and ride a bicycle than we have been making for the last fifty years.

The state of Iowa meets two things that I think put it on the national map that are kind of fitness oriented. They're kind of classic events, and one is, of course, RAGBRAI, which is this amazing ride across the state, which serves, by a way, to focus people. If you know you’re doing RAGBRAI this July, then you’re training. So I think it’s a catalyzing event.

Another one is the Lighten Up Iowa program. I really like it because again, although it's only a four-month period and the notion is to get a group together, a team, and all try to make progress on your health and wellness.

Whether it's losing weight or just accumulating miles, the goal orientation and the group orientation, what that does is create social support. And a lot of research shows that people are much more likely to embark on and stick with exercise or physical activity if they've got social support, if they've got someone else to do it with, someone else depending on them.

I have had the good fortune of working with the folks at your state D.O.T. on your Safe Routes to School program. Safe Routes to School is a national initiative; it was actually funded through the federal highway bill. That’s designated as funds that can only be used to improve the environment, both the physical and the social environment, around schools for walking and bicycling. Seventy percent of it is to be used for infrastructure improvement: fixing those crosswalks near the school that haven't been painted in ten years; improving the signal lights or the phasing on the signals; connecting sidewalks that are missing.

We realize it’s not just about changing the physical infrastructure, but the community has to sort of embrace the notion. One of the interesting tools that’s being used all around the country and what they're going to launch there is called Walking School Buses. The idea is a designated route that an adult walks to school picking up kids along the way, just like a school bus. We also make bicycle trains. The same idea.

An adult is going to ride a bike to school, picking kids up along the way on their bicycles. The advantage there is that the concerned parent says, “Well, there's a dangerous street that I'm worried about, you know, predators or something like that. Well, if I’ve got an adult along, I'm very comfortable with that.

So we get a group of parents in the neighborhood to take turns. My wife and I are actually part of a walking school bus, about 12 kids from my neighborhood. We go about 7/10 of a mile to our school, and it's been wonderful. We see the young kids interacting with the older kids. We see ourselves interacting with the other parents and the other kids in the neighborhood. I know all the kids in my neighborhood so much better than if we weren't walking every day.

Not only do we get this walking to and from school and, of course, the obvious health benefits, but the teachers tell us kids tend to be better behaved. They come in having spent some energy in the morning, they’re a little more ready to learn, a little more likely to be calm and ready to be in the classroom. And as I say, I think most importantly, our neighborhood feels that we've really benefited from it.

Tags: exercise infrastructure Iowa