Minnesota is known for its healthy ways. After all, it’s ranked as the sixth healthiest state in the United States, according to America’s Health Rankings by the United Health Foundation. However, the small town of Albert Lea, Minn., wasn’t experiencing that same success.
“Our county health indicators were well below the average in our state,” says Ellen Kehr, the organizational lead of the Blue Zones Project in Albert Lea. “We tried smaller programs to encourage exercise but realized that we needed to take a bold look at building a culture of well-being so these programs can thrive.”
Enter the Blue Zones Project, which through policy and programs aims to transform communities across the United States into areas where the healthy choice is easy, and people live longer with a higher quality of life. Albert Lea was a pilot program in 2009. Blue Zones has since successfully worked with Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beaches, Calif., and the state of Iowa.
“When it comes to the built environment, it’s about making walking the natural and easy choice by implementing a Complete Streets policy, which ensures that projects are planned and designed to meet the needs of every community member, regardless of their age, ability or how they travel,” says Dan Burden, director of innovation and inspiration of Blue Zones LLC in Minneapolis, Minn.
Albert Lea immediately passed a Complete Streets policy and looked at its built environment in a different way.
“We revitalized downtown, slowed down traffic, widened the sidewalks, increased access to the two lakes that sit on either side of the downtown and filled in more than seven miles of sidewalk gaps around the lake,” says Kehr. “Our community-wide walking and biking went up 40 percent.”
Not only that, but the community well-being — an overlooked benefit to increased physical activity — went up 2.8 percent between 2014 and 2016. Also, smoking dropped considerably and now is less than 15 percent, far below the national average of 18.5 percent in 2015. According to a recent study, the environmental transformation led to a foot-traffic influx, revitalizing the city’s downtown. Restaurants added outdoor dining areas and 15 businesses have opened since 2013. The changes added $1.2 million worth of property value, and developers have invested more than $1.5 million in building permits since 2013.
After implementing changes in another Blue Zone area — Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beaches — smoking rates fell 30 percent while obesity rates dropped 14 percent. Also, the number of people who consume at least five servings of fruit or vegetables a day jumped 10 percent, and the cities secured an additional $3.8 million in state and federal funding for future planning initiatives.
It’s about making walking the natural and easy choice.
Encouraging Americans to Walk
It’s no surprise that cities such as Albert Lea and others are looking to increase the physical activity of residents. In 2015, the Surgeon General issued a Call to Action called Step It Up! encouraging the promotion of walking and walkable communities. Step It Up! includes five strategic goals, which are: to make walking a national priority; design communities that make it safe and easy to walk for people of all ages and abilities; promote programs and policies to support walking where people live, learn, work, and play; provide information to encourage walking and improve walkability; and fill surveillance, research, and evaluation gaps related to walking and walkability.
According to the Call to Action, physical activity can reduce illness from chronic diseases and premature death, help prevent risk factors for disease (such as high blood pressure and weight gain) and protect against multiple chronic diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and depression). In children and adolescents, physical activity can improve bone health, cardio respiratory and muscular fitness. In addition, says the report, among adults, physical activity is associated with improved quality of life, emotional well-being and positive mental health.
Besides reducing illness and disease and improving emotional well-being, the rising interest in walking is due to the promises beyond better health. According to author Jay Walljasper, “taking a walk is one of the best ways to meet new neighbors and deepen ties with those you already know.”
Walljasper co-authored a book called, “America’s Walking Renaissance: How Cities, Suburbs and Towns are Getting Back on Their Feet,” which outlines other benefits to walking and physical activity.
Physical activity is associated with improved quality of life, emotional well-being and positive mental health.
“You can attribute everything from lower local healthcare costs and better school performance to more creativity, reduced anxiety and increased economic health in communities with walkable neighborhoods,” he says.
Walking, it seems, can cure a host of ills. In fact, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, each .62 mile walked per day is associated with a 5 percent decrease in the likelihood of obesity. So, why isn’t everyone doing it?
Getting People to Walk
“Research is saying that telling people to exercise doesn’t work,” says Marcus Fenton, an independent public health planning and transportation consultant and adjunct associate professor at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “At the same time, a growing body of research shows that if you build an environment where people walk in daily life, it’s effective. The design is important.”
Walljasper agrees. “Exercise must be baked into peoples’ days. If you have to get in your car to go to the gym, you won’t do it that often. But, if you’re walking to the bus stop and back, your daily commute can get you that magical exercise,” he says.
Safety concerns can also be a barrier to walking. Several factors according to the World Health Organization can influence pedestrian risks, such as unsafe driver and pedestrian behaviors and challenging physical environments. In surveys of parents, the most commonly reported barrier for walking to school was the distance to school, followed by traffic-related dangers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Study, “Barriers to Children Walking to or from School.” Fear of crime or perceptions of an unsafe neighborhood may also be potential barriers to walking.
Policy Decisions and Advocacy
The lack of solutions to these problems has led to policy decisions and advocacy groups forming to encourage this type of physical activity through programs, infrastructure and more.
When it comes to walking, says Amy Schumann, an environmental health planner with Public Health Seattle and King County, “There are two approaches to getting people to walk. One is programmatic, through senior centers, walking school buses (where an adult is designated the lead to walk kids to school) and motivational programs. These are all important and helpful.” The other approach is through environmental change. “The assumption is that we all want to walk more in our community, but some communities have barriers to making that possible. The stronger focus on the environmental changes that benefit communities; the more people get active in their daily activities.”
The built environment can influence physical activity and encourage people to walk, bike and enjoy their communities.
Feet First in Seattle is hoping to create walkable places by removing barriers.
“The mission of Feet First is to make cities across Washington State more walkable places,” says Lisa Quinn, executive director of Feet First. “We have an advisory council that looks holistically at the areas, with the departments of transportation and health, the coroner and other officials.” The group conducts walking audits, where they, “take a deeper dive into the neighborhood, determining safe routes to school, identify barriers and make recommendations for creating a more walkable and safe community.”
One such audit took place in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle that included a group of Mercer Middle School staff members, students and their families, neighbors, cycling advocates, a local business owner and transportation planners from the Seattle Department of Transportation.
“The goal of the walking and biking audit was to make observations and recommendations on ways to improve walking and biking access for students and families on their way to and from school,” says Quinn. “After presenting our recommendations to the city, the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Parks Department worked together to support our recommendations.”
In 2015, Green Stormwater Infrastructure techniques were used with a new drainage swale, including small native trees and a French drain to the east of the sidewalk. New street trees were added, contributing to the cities’ goal to increase the urban canopy 30 percent by 2037.
Improvements also include parking surfacing, wheel stops and a rock wall. The improvements around the neighborhood have connected the park and a greenway to get people by foot easily to the library, store and light rail station, says Quinn. The project supports a Safe Route to School that includes a Walking School Bus. It has also improved the overall health and connection of the neighborhood, according to Quinn.
Another organization that aims to provide a voice for walking and walkable communities with federal agencies is America Walks, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit national organization.
“We opened another round of micro grants in October to fund small interventions in communities around the country,” says Kate Kraft, executive director of America Walks.
The grants, about $1,500 each, provide communities with assistance so they can develop a community engagement strategy or organize a rally to jumpstart a walking campaign.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the state of Iowa with a statewide walking effort,” says Kraft, who notes that they’ve also worked in the San Francisco region passing Complete Streets policies.
Local governments are also trying to effect change. Schumann and her team frequently work with jurisdictions to strengthen healthy language in comprehensive and local plans.
“We help them update their guiding documents that set the tone for the city, so it moves forward with transportation, parks and rec and roads on the same page, thinking about walking and biking.”
She also works with transportation planners to change the focus from moving the most number of cars through an area to building complete streets and adding mobility to move people, rather than cars, through areas.
“A few years ago, we worked with Seattle on a pedestrian master plan that included health data from the health department to provide a more collaborative, comprehensive plan,” Schumann says.
The truth is that the benefits of walking and physical activity can’t be ignored and communities know it. Many housing sites now offer walk scores (walkscore. com) that show how easy it is to walk to stores and restaurants from the house.
The benefits of walking and physical activity can’t be ignored.
“The thing that keeps us passionate and motivated about this work is the focus on equity and social justice,” says Schumann when talking about Seattle. “There are so many communities that have been left out, and the amenities that some neighborhoods enjoy isn’t the reality for a lot of people. Providing the basic infrastructure so that people can safely walk their kids to school or walk for enjoyment and exercise is a basic human right. We focus on bringing attention to this need and distributing the funding fairly.”
It’s hard to believe that something so easy — walking 30 minutes a day — can provide so many astonishing community, physical and mental health benefits. The fact that it can also offer social justice to communities is an equally important aspect.
So, what are you waiting for — get out there and walk!