The Active Living Imperative

The issue of obesity is oft discussed in the media and by healthy living figureheads like Michelle Obama as the cause for many of our country’s ills.  Mrs. Obama fights to introduce healthy, affordable produce into our food deserts (discussed eloquently in this recent blog post), and champions increased physical activity for children.  For adults, much of the obesity debate seems to center around changing individual attitudes towards fast food and television.  This approach incorrectly focuses on the choices themselves when it should focus on the environment in which those choices are made.  Obesity is not simply the result of an individual’s choice, but the effect of many government policies —transportation, public safety, economic development, etc. — on that individual’s environment that enable him to make one choice over another. 

To be clear, this is not a call for government to coerce people into gyms or mandate treadmill desks for all offices within jurisdictional boundaries.  This is an entreaty to help residents choose the healthiest options for themselves.  This is done by removing barriers to healthy choices, like eliminating graffiti from walkable corridors to make them safe and inviting, allowing food stamps at farmer’s markets and limiting downtown parking to encourage walking.  And it is done by increasing the quantity and quality of healthy options, like strategically locating transit stops, sidewalks and bike lanes for ease of use, creating incentives for healthy corner stores, and installing bicycle lanes and playgrounds.  In an interview about Shape Up Somerville, the Tufts University-led ‘environmental change intervention’ in his city, Mayor Joseph Curtatone explained to his constituents, “We’re not telling you how to live your life, we want to make sure that we’re giving you the best options.”  In this way, government can implement policies that help their constituents make healthy choices.

To look at it another way, let us start from the beginning with some fundamental questions about obesity:

What is obesity and how widespread is it?
Overweight and Obesity are labels for weight ranges that are greater than what is generally considered healthy for a given height.  Obesity is the heaviest designation, defined as a Body Mass Index of 30 or more, and has been shown to increase the likelihood of certain diseases and other health problems, including coronary heart disease and cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks data on obesity and has documented the trends by state since 1985 in an animated map.  The map shows, in terrifying detail, how more than thirty percent of adults across the nation came to be obese.  (And this data is self-reported, which suggests under-reporting.)  Our proportions are now epidemic.

And it is not just adults: one in six children aged 2-19 are obese.  In a country with a legacy of remarkable medical, technological and governmental achievements, many experts are concerned that this generation of American children will not outlive their parents.

Considering the myriad other threats to cities, why should this be a policy priority?

A recent New York Times article puts the obesity epidemic in perspective: “You’re sitting in a freshly drywalled house, drinking coffee from a plastic foam cup and talking on a cellphone.  Which of these is most likely to be a cancer risk?  It might be the sitting, especially if you do that a lot.”  Physical inactivity is harmful to our bottoms.

And it is harmful to our bottom lines.  The economic consequences for our society entail an increase in medical and transportation costs, a less productive workforce, a higher prevalence of disabilities and premature deaths, and a possible link to reduced educational attainment.  A healthy workforce is essential for national and local competitiveness.

How can behavior be changed?
Behavior change is possible through good design.  Active Living is a health-focused policy that integrates physical activity into daily life through strategic design of our built environment.  Several innovative design models come from experiments conducted by Volkswagen, all caught on video, to see if people would choose a healthy behavior – taking the stairs, recycling plastic bottles, throwing away trash, obeying the speed limit – if it were made more fun.  The experiments worked.

How can city leaders incorporate active living policies in their communities?
While the federal government does not have active design standards or guidelines, local governments are successfully employing both traditional and innovative strategies across all sectors.  They are repurposing existing land, expanding recreation facilities, adding pedestrian medians to streets, implementing new transit options like bike-sharing programs and creating targeted community education campaigns. The Cities of Kirkland, Wash.; Columbus, Ohio; and Bloomington, Ind., have developed citizen-engaged task forces to promote and help guide active living initiatives.  The City of Decatur, Ga., has created an active living agency.  Others are conducting Health Impact Assessments of current conditions to determine vulnerable neighborhoods and populations.  In Oklahoma City, Okla., Mayor Mick Cornett is leading by example; he put his city on a diet, starting with himself.  He lost forty-two pounds and started a website,, which has enrolled 45,000 residents who have collectively lost more than 800,000 pounds.

To assist city leaders as they implement active living policies, NLC published a new municipal action guide, Healthy People, Healthy Places – Building Sustainable Communities Through Active Living.  Improving public health is one of several benefits of active communities addressed by the guide, along with stimulating the local economy, increasing public safety, and supporting the environment.  In addition, the guide provides resources for cities like toolkits and additional city practices.

La Rambla de Barcelona

The first thing a visitor to Barcelona may notice is the time shift. At 7:30 in the morning, even the Starbucks is not open. In fact, the only people on the streets of the Gothic Quarter are the tourists streaming from their small hotels past the closed shops with the doors covered in graffiti.

Even with recent street protests connected to government austerity moves and local elections, the tourists are out in force. The pedestrian promenade of La Rambla is packed with people. The crowd undulates as it moves south or north in the wake of tour guides with small red or green flags.

Barcelona combines the history of the medieval world with the modernism of Picasso and the architectural grandeur of Gaudi. Even for those who can only spend one day in Barcelona, a visit to the Gothic cathedral, the Picasso museum and the Gaudi residences in the Eixample (The Extension) neighborhood will suffice to confirm this city’s allure.

Like Paris, there is not much new construction evident in Barcelona. The city of 1.6 million is densely populated but there are no skyscrapers. Even the commercial buildings presently under construction do not rise above the steeples of La Sagrada Familia.

Urbanists of various stripes will argue the merits of Barcelona’s status as a world class city. Jane Jacobs undoubtedly loved the preservation of the old city and the four-story buildings along Passeig de Gracia. Ed Glaeser (Triumph of the City) would probably decry the high real estate prices and the failure to offer opportunities for population growth among the middle and working classes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would point out the ubiquitous graffiti and the high level of street crime – pick pockets that would make even the Artful Dodger proud.

But perhaps it’s more valuable to ask average football fans what they think of the city. With Spain as the reigning champion of the World Cup and Football Club Barcelona the newest holder of the European Cup, the local pride in this city’s achievements since the 1992 Olympic Games are unshakable.

And for those who don’t enjoy the world’s most popular sport, one can always turn for validation to the legends of modernism: Pablo Picasso and Antoni Gaudi. They made Barcelona home and left an enduring legacy of art and architecture. In no other place on the planet can one visit the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in the morning and see the paintings of Las Meninas after lunch.

In the end, Barcelona is Spain’s principle economic engine and a rich source of the human capacity for creativity and innovation. As a place, Barcelona is the center of a highly productive region that draws people to its precincts. There are few better measures of a world class city then whether or not people want to go there.

“New Urbanism”: What Does it Mean to City Leaders?

The term new urbanism brings about visions of the constructed reality of Truman Burbank—played by actor Jim Carey in the 1998 Hollywood movie, The Truman Show.  The movie depicts Burbank’s fabricated made-for-TV life in his made-for-TV small town and was filmed on location in Seaside, Florida.

Seaside was master planned in the early ‘90s, and its design upholds the tenets of new urbanism; however, its traditional quality of life is reserved mainly for wealthy residents and vacationers.  But Seaside designer and architect Andrés Duany and his disciples have since been working to promote development that responds to increasingly harmful urban and suburban sprawl with walkability, connectivity, diversity and density.  This is done under the term new urbanism and with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an annual conference of scholars and students of architecture and planning in support of these efforts.

The 19th annual Congress (CNU-19) also highlighted the important place for city leaders in the new urbanism conversation.  CNU president and CEO John Norquist served as mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004 as a “fiscally conservative socialist.”  During his tenure as mayor, he supported light rail and other transit projects to ease the economic and environmental costs of congestion, but he asserted that the federal role in local urban policy was at best misguided.  At CNU-19, Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, discussed improving the quality of life for aging residents with good community design and social services in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he also served as mayor from 1981-1989.

NLC too acknowledged the importance of local government in enabling and funding new urbanism projects, though the term itself is seldom part of NLC’s or many city leaders’ vocabulary.  The 2011 summer meeting of NLC’s First Tier Suburbs Council was held in conjunction with CNU-19.  City leaders in attendance were on board with concepts they already see as good planning.  They enthusiastically embraced discussions of form-based code zoning, context-sensitive street improvements, and shopping mall retrofits.  But what can these city leaders bring back to their colleagues to show that new urbanism is not just another fad in an economic climate where it’s increasingly difficult to make a case for new development?

New urbanism—along with other nebulous concepts like sustainability, smart growth and livability—must be sufficiently defined in order to be effectively used.  And it must be defined in a way that resonates with city leaders, whose buy-in is crucial for such development projects.  Despite the name, the concepts that make up new urbanism are not new.  Nor are they strictly urban.  In fact, more recently, new urbanism is in the business of taking traditional urban design and super-imposing it on areas that are struggling to maintain environmental and economic value in the age of sprawl—most appropriately in the suburbs.  Therein lies the opportunity to translate the jargon of new urbanism into the language of the city leader.

New urbanism and other concepts that encourage traditional community design contribute to a strong economy and a prosperous future.  Good planning helps solve problems such as congestion, pollution and inefficient use of resources, which ultimately saves money.  In addition, it supports a built environment that encourages the public to invest and engage in its community.  While new urbanism may be about adopting a form-based code or a designing a walkable street, when translated into the language of the city leader, it’s about creating and capturing the value of a community.  When presented in this way, it’s difficult for any city leader to deny a trend that improves the economic, environmental and social value of the community.

Harvesting the fruit begins with finding the tree

Getting started with, or ramping up sustainability initiatives can be a complex process. In a field teeming with ideas and options but perpetually short on funds, capacity, or clear guidance, emphasis has largely been placed on tackling initiatives considered to be on the low-hanging branches of sustainability. Yet even taking on these small-scale, incremental efforts presumes that there has been at least a basic understanding of and support for pursuing sustainability in the first place. It requires that enough people have found the tree, gathered round, and agree that not only do the fruits appear safe enough to harvest but they are ready to work together to make it happen. In other words, moving forward with even the most basic elements of sustainability may depend to a large extent on first achieving a certain level of buy-in into a concept that has traditionally struggled to define itself.

Unequal parts art, science, charisma, and compelling vision, communication may be one of the most important, and yet vastly underdeveloped, tools in the toolbox of sustainability. The lack of effective messaging in many ways is understandable. Rarely an isolated activity that can be easily seen, evaluated and understood, sustainability may more accurately be considered as an overall concept or framework, manifested through a purposeful combination of factors with an intended outcome to enhance and/or protect social, environmental, and economic conditions. While generally supported in theory (i.e. do no harm; make life better), contextual variation of initiatives, absence of a tangible “it”, and a range of messages emphasizing everything from polar bears to canvas bags have contributed to ambiguity and may in some cases dilute the comprehensiveness emblematic of sustainability efforts.

In a world of budget cuts, competing interests, and partisan divides, issues that lack clear, consistent, unifying, and accurate messages are likely at greatest risk to get left behind, or at the very least severely short-changed – at all levels of government. At a recent summit hosted by the Department of Energy for SEP and EECBG grantees speakers touted the value of effective communication and quantifiable results as strategies that will continue to rise in importance in the face of dwindling federal resources. In one session leaders were encouraged to focus on efforts to evaluate, measure, and verify energy efficiency impacts in order to gain the confidence of private investors and encourage public buy-in.  Key take-away’s from other sessions centered on the need for greater transparency, broad partnerships, behavior change, information sharing, and effective messaging. The need for more effective communication strategies is not necessarily a new topic, though it is one that has been gaining increased interest at the federal level. In November the U.S. EPA hosted a workshop entitled “The Power of Information to Motivate Change: Communicating the Energy Efficiency of Today’s Commercial Buildings” to bring together industry, government, and utilities to discuss important strategies such as benchmarking and disclosure to catalyze efficiency efforts.

Despite financial challenges cities are increasingly moving forward with sustainability efforts and gaining support by demonstrating the wide range of benefits – including cost savings and job creation – intrinsic to many initiatives. While many have been successful at gathering partners around the tree and sampling the fruit, broadening and sustaining support will likely continue to be an ongoing challenge into the near future. Absent financial support from federal, state, or internal budgets are local governments ready to communicate their way towards more sustainable communities and regions? How is your city communicating the concept of, and your efforts around, sustainability? Post a comment or send your experiences to

Local Food for Economic Prosperity

Food is among the most relatable, and certainly most fundamental, issues facing our country.  Regardless of race or class, everyone has an agrarian heritage somewhere in his or her ancestry.  And regardless of culture or political leaning, everyone must eat.

The modern food system is much more complicated though, with stakeholders, profits and politics muddling the otherwise simple survival instinct to feed ourselves.  In many cities and regions with a strong agricultural tradition, the majority of food grown is exported to other parts of the country and world, forcing the city to import the majority of the food its residents consume.  This mismatch between production and consumption — caused as farmers are incentivized to grow cash crops that require processing, packaging and marketing, until the product looks little like its raw food version — has negative impacts on local economies and environments.  The recent uptick in consumers’ efforts to buy locally-produced food is a reflection of the desire to return to self-reliance and community preservation.

City officials play an essential role in cultivating a strong food system to drive local economic recovery.  On a panel at the Community Food Security Coalition’s recent conference, Food Policy from Neighborhood to Nation, Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center described his vision for local food economies built on health, wealth, connection and capacity.  The current food system takes wealth out of farming communities and funnels it to banking and commercial sectors, Meter said.  By building an inclusive network of community-based businesses – founded not only in commerce but in connections and trust – cities can capitalize on food’s ubiquity to foster economic prosperity.  Local elected officials can support this small business infrastructure and catalyze connections between farmers and consumers to keep food dollars circulating within the local economy.  A shift from a linear supply chain leading out of the community to a value network of local stakeholders can allow the money spent on food to buoy local economic prosperity.

For example, speaking on the same panel, Janie Burns of Meadowlark Farm in Nampa, Idaho referenced an assessment of Vermont’s potential to stimulate its economy through food.  The study by economist Doug Hoffer found that by substituting local products for 10% of imported food, Vermont could enjoy $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 new jobs.  A study by Ken Meter found similar potential for Boulder County, Colorado.  In 2009, of the $662 million that Boulder County consumers spent on food, only $715,000 of products were sold by farmers directly to consumers.  Therefore, if Boulder County undertook a “10% Local Food Shift” campaign, the local food sector could grow by $66 million annually, significantly strengthening the local economy.

The food system has enormous potential as a driver of economic recovery, but the shift must be intentional.  Local elected officials must be champions on this issue, which transcends government department silos and affects every constituent’s quality of life.  More and more city leaders are recognizing that food creates jobs, and that food security is energy security and economic security.  Leaders like Cleveland Councilmember Joe Cimperman, who is frustrated by the 24 year discrepancy in life expectancy across Cleveland’s neighborhoods and aims to reduce that number through healthy food initiatives and community gardens to make neighborhoods safer, happier and better connected.  Leaders like Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin who sponsored Seattle’s Local Food Action Initiative, now in its fourth year of strengthening urban agriculture business opportunities and connections between regional farmers.  Leaders like Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who planted a vegetable garden at City Hall that grows produce for homeless shelters and who seeks to improve access to local food through 20-minute complete neighborhoods.  And leaders like First Lady Michelle Obama, whose Let’s Move! campaign seeks to reverse childhood obesity within a generation, through physical activity and healthy eating.  Through champions like these and many more, cities and towns are reconsidering their local food systems and the related impacts.

To reflect these inspiring efforts, the sustainability program at the National League of Cities recently released a city practice brief, Developing a Sustainable Food System, which highlights nine cities’ programs to increase urban agriculture opportunities, improve access to fresh food and reduce food system waste.  These examples are among many solutions from cities that seek to ease the environmental burden of their food system, improve public health and cultivate economically strong local food sources.