There is something of a sea change afoot in Wyobraska.
Seven years after Scottsbluff earned the dubious distinction of being the “seventh fattest city in America” due to its rate of overweight and obese residents, self-reported inactivity, and poor walkability rating, there are more than 30 area running races and triathlons listed on the Western Wind Running Club Facebook page, there is an active Western Nebraska Bicycling Club, many new workplace wellness programs are in full swing, and communities throughout the region are putting in new recreational pathways.
An Oct. 14 gathering in Sidney marked another deviation from this characterization of slothfulness. In cooperation with local government, business, health care, and education representatives, the Panhandle Public Health District organized a “Let’s Activate Sidney” summit, at which members of the Sidney community strategized about opportunities for and barriers to increasing biking, walking, running, and overall citizen health. The goal of the summit was to take concrete action and move towards the development of a multi-year strategic plan to make Sidney a healthier place to live.
Jessica Davies, Wellness Coordinator with the Panhandle Public Health District, vowed that the momentum generated at the summit would have a positive impact on the community: “It will not fizzle out!”
The summit – one of six in Nebraska funded through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – could not have been timelier.
On Sept. 9, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a call to action to tackle inactivity, which he noted is now one of the most critical threats to Americans’ health. Over time, American citizens have become less and less physically active, contributing to crisis-level incidences of chronic health conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Murthy’s solution and call to action – “Step It Up!” – is at once simple and complex: incorporate ways for Americans to walk, wheel and run in their daily lives, with support from community organizations including schools, local governments, health care providers, places of worship, businesses, and nonprofit and service organizations.
The role of city planning in public health is featured front-and-center.
“Where you live today can be an all-too-accurate indicator of how healthy you’ll be,” Murthy said in his call to action address.
While fitness activities like running, biking, swimming and lifting weights are certainly ways to improve community health, the Surgeon General’s primary focus is on a simpler activity.
“One of the most powerful things we can do to turn the tide on chronic disease is something that we have been doing for a millennium, and that is walking,” Murthy said.
If there are safe and attractive walking routes that connect people’s homes and workplaces with the places they want to go – schools, libraries, restaurants, churches – they are more likely to walk, thus combining physical activity with their commute.
Some of the action items proposed during the Sidney summit addressed this sort of connectivity, including a review of city and county ordinances affecting walking and biking infrastructure and a mapping project to highlight and identify current pathways and best routes.
The five other Nebraska cities included in the CDC planning grant – Hebron, Lexington, Superior, Grand Island, and Hastings – may have developed similar action items, or they could have gone in completely different directions. The point of the summits is to identify the unique actions that each community can take to tweak existing physical and social infrastructure to encourage more day-to-day activity.
Davies said that the “Let’s Activate Sidney” summit is also serving as a pilot program. She envisions similar sessions being replicated in communities throughout the Panhandle.
I could not be more thrilled with this development.
For many years now, I have been relying on my feet and my bicycle for transportation. What started out of necessity during my financially-tight post-college years and grew into a habit when I realized something.
I am fundamentally lazy. I dislike going to the gym and taking time out of my day for scheduled workouts. But if I can walk to the grocery store or ride my bike to work, I can sneak in exercise without “working out.”
The quality of the sidewalks and paths that connect me to my destination definitely influence my behavior, though. If it’s too difficult, inconvenient or unpleasant, the lazy part of me wins out, and I’m more likely to drive. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.
I can see improvements like added curb cuts, enforcement of crosswalk laws and attractive sidewalks connected to the front doors of businesses leading to increased walking and fitness in the community. But there are benefits to a community beyond fitness.
Wheelchair-friendly walking and biking infrastructure can improve employment security for people who – for financial, health or legal reasons – do not have access to reliable automobile transportation.
During a panel discussion at the Sidney summit, planners and public health professionals linked walking and biking to the economic goal of attracting and retaining population in rural communities. Younger generations increasingly prefer communities that are more walkable and bikable. Older generations value walkable communities, too, according to a 2011 AARP baby boomer housing survey.
(Side note: I was surprised to see the volume of materials available in the AARP “walkability archive.”)
With these changes in individual preference, city planning practices and public health focus, the tide does seem to be shifting towards a more walkable, bikable Panhandle.
Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw