Fenton Says Community Design Can Increase Health and Wealth

Mark Fenton with Carla Olson, Heidi Porter and Sue Baldauf
Presenter Mark Fenton with organizers Carla Olson, Heidi Porter and Sue Baldauf 


By Kim Siebert MacPhail

The Old Town Hall auditorium was full of “free-range” adults on May 23: not one of the 50 participants who came to hear Mark Fenton’s presentation— “Healthy Bedford by Design”—  had, as children, experienced scheduled sports, worn uniforms or had an adult present wherever they went.

“This is about life skills,” said Fenton, a public health, planning and transportation consultant. “The creativity and inventiveness of making up games, developing leadership skills of being a captain and having to pick teams, negotiation skills when a ball goes out of bounds and there are no grown-ups to tell you what to do about it—these are the skills you use as adults and as leaders in your community. I submit that you started developing these skills as a free-range kid when you were seven.”

What kids today are missing, Fenton claims, are the benefits of unstructured play with a broader range of kids of different ages and socio-economic circumstances.

“There’s no inventiveness and creativity now in terms of having to deal with people who aren’t like you. And why is that? Why can’t kids disappear outside on a Saturday morning? What do parents say? ‘It’s not safe! It’s scary! It’s terrifying! There are strangers out there lurking behind trees.’

“But the fact of the matter is that crime against children by strangers has increased exactly zero percent in the last thirty years. And in the same time period, childhood obesity levels tripled and Type II diabetes isn’t just for adults anymore. Coincidence? Absolutely not. We got in the habit of throwing our kids in the back seat of the car to go everywhere,” Fenton added.

“Now, how many in this room think that it’s a good thing that kids aren’t free range anymore,” Fenton asked. When no hands were raised he added, “Then the only question that matters is ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Fenton proposed that a community’s design—mixed-use development, shared roads, sidewalks, trails, bike paths, the desirability of destinations—is a big reason why people choose to get from place to place by car or by other, more active means. In other words, the walkability of a neighborhood or a community can encourage and discourage activity.  Fenton puts it bluntly: “Where you live can make you fat. In order to reduce the risk of obesity, chronic disease and early death, children should get a minimum of one hour of exercise a day and adults should get 30 minutes—or at least 150 minutes each week. 365,000 premature deaths occur annually that are attributable to inactivity. Only 20% of Americans actually get the recommended amount.”

But, simply stating these grim statistics and telling people to become more active has not proven to be enough of a motivating influence, Fenton explained. “Handing out t-shirts and water bottles just doesn’t cut it,” he said.  Public policies and capital spending decisions that are based on health factors that decrease car-dependency are essential to success.

“Smarter community designs can not only improve our waistlines, but can actually provide benefits to the triple bottom line of better public health, environmental sustainability, and improved economic vitality,” Fenton said.  Citing a report from CEOs for Cities, “Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in US Cities,” Fenton said that homes with high walkability scores are worth between $4,000 and $34,000 more than comparable homes in less walkable areas. Additionally, The National Association of Realtors website “On Common Ground” highlights trends that emphasize the need for mixed-use development, walkability, and multi-generational housing.

“There’s dramatic, unmet demand,” Fenton said. “I’m not saying everybody wants to live in places like this but….the recession and the cost of gas have changed the demand curve,” Fenton said. “Even in the more rural settings, we should make sure there are sidewalks and bike trails connecting in those neighborhoods that are lower density and spread further out” in order to promote connectivity and healthy living.

Fenton then described the “Big Six” or what towns can do to build healthy living into a community’s everyday life: Promote healthy planning and zoning that includes a mix of land uses so that where residents “live, work, shop, play, learn, and pray are intermingled and close together.”

  • Include “complete streets” designs that consider all users—drivers, bikers, walkers.
  • Develop trails for transportation, not just for recreation, that create a network in-town and with neighboring towns.
  • Create inviting designs and destinations by putting storefronts at the curb and parking lots in the rear of commercial/retail buildings to avoid “sea of pavement” expanses.
  • Support the Safe Routes to School program.
  • Ensure access to healthy foods by creating/expanding community garden acreage, supporting community supported agriculture (CSAs) and farmers markets. Consider restricting fast food businesses.

Because Bedford is currently undergoing a Comprehensive Plan update, Fenton encouraged town leaders to include walking tours of any physical aspects of the plan that would benefit from first-hand, public familiarity. He also recommended that the town consider forming a “Lean Leadership Team” to develop a vision for how to improve the town’s health profile.

“If you don’t bother doing the infrastructure changes and the policy changes, don’t bother with behavior change programs,” Fenton summarized. “Don’t do another Walk to School Day event unless you’re committed to working on the other stuff.

“We’re raising a generation of kids who have a shorter life expectancy than us,” Fenton concluded. “Anytime that somebody tries to push back by saying, ‘You’re trying to impose your lifestyle on me,’ I say that I’m not doing it for me or for you; I’m doing it for our kids and grandchildren who have shorter life expectancies because of the world we’ve built.”

Healthy Community Resources from “Design Can Improve Health, Environment, and Local Economy”
Mark Fenton, Municipal Advocate Vol. 25, No.4



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