August 12th, 2010

I learned so much at the Health Action Summit yesterday in Hoover.  Keynote speaker Mark Fentonhad a lot to say about how smart community planning and zoning policies could make all of our communities more livable, walkable, and conducive to physical activity.  The Summit was part of the Jefferson County Health Department’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant, which is combining resources to fight obesity, tobacco use, and chronic disease – problems that especially afflict low-income communities in Jefferson County.

A complete street: image via foundationbirmingham.org

On a walking tour of Highway 31 next to the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover, we noticed how many people of all ages were traveling on foot and bicycle – despite the fact that the environment was not very accommodating. Mark noted “goat trails” where walkers had worn pathways into the grass along the side of the highway, and watched as a young man sat on his bicycle waiting for a green light through two cycles because his bike would not trigger the light change. We then saw a young man help his pre-school-aged son cross the street at a busy, treacherous intersection with no crosswalk and no median or island to serve as a refuge.

Why aren’t our communities more conducive to physical activity? Our entire built environment caters to automobiles. Many of the people who rely on foot transportation or bikes to get around do so out of necessity because they lack a working vehicle. They’re experiencing significant inconvenience and possibly danger, but they’re benefiting from physical exercise. If Mark Fenton had his way, we would all be walking more often, and those walks would be safer, more convenient, and enjoyable.

Amanda Storey of Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities is also interested in getting more kids involved in walking to and from school. In her presentation at yesterday’s summit, she enthusiastically recounted her efforts to bring the Walking Schoolbus to all Jefferson County schools. Walking schoolbuses provide a safe, fun route for kids to walk to school accompanied by an adult.

October 6 is “walk to school day,” and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities is sponsoring a walking event at Gate City Elementary School. Check it out! G.W. Carver Elementary in Montgomery is havingtheir own walk to school day event. This would be a great time promote more walking in your own neighborhood.

Posted by Robyn Hyden