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Local infrastructure can encourage healthy decisions

Audrey Power, of Topeka, says she walks on the Shunga Trail every day for her health. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal)

The environment people live in has a big influence on how healthy they are.

 

That doesn’t mean failed New Year’s resolutions can be blamed entirely on surroundings — a healthy lifestyle is still largely determined by individual choices — but infrastructure and community initiatives can go a long way in encouraging residents to make healthier, more responsible decisions.

Shawnee County is on the path to making this a reality for its residents, thanks to a variety of planned additions to trails and walkways.

“Our 10-year master plan is to have 150 miles of trails in the county,” said Mike McLaughlin, communications and public information supervisor for Shawnee County Parks and Recreation. “We currently have just over 54 miles. An important element of the trails is connectivity. If we can get the current trails to connect to one another, it encourages more use, and people can use them to get to more places for more reasons.”

The Kansas Department of Transportation recently provided a grant to extend the Deer Creek Trail from S.E. 10th Street through Dornwood Park to S.E. 25th Street. McLaughlin said the hope is to eventually connect it to the Lake Shawnee Trail. That would allow cyclists, or ambitious runners, the ability to start on Shunga Trail at its new S.W. 29th and McClure entry point and travel all the way from southwest Topeka to Lake Shawnee without leaving the trail.

McLaughlin said the deciding factor between whether someone hops in a car or walks or bikes to their destination often comes down to how close a trail is to their residence. That’s just one example of how improved accessibility can enhance a community’s health.

“The best policies are those that make the healthy choice the easy one. That’s not always the case,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, senior fellow and team leader for public health systems and services at the Kansas Health Institute. “If you live, for example, in a place that doesn’t have easy access to affordable fresh food, the easy choice is to go to a convenience store around the corner to buy food less healthy for you.”

For that reason, Pezzino said, the 2016 closure of Dillons at S.W. Huntoon St. and Washburn Ave. is a sore spot for him. While driving an extra two to three miles to another Dillons store may not seem like a burden to some, those without cars are more likely to choose unhealthy options without a grocery store within walking distance.

The issues, though, are challenging. Dan Partridge, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said the Lawrence community has been working on the food desert issue for years, looking particularly at East and North Lawrence areas that don’t have adequate access to food.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “It’s really about a grocer has to turn a profit. It’s hard to overcome that when the market analysis doesn’t look promising.”

Researchers like Pezzino at the KHI conduct studies that lead to publications created for policymakers, arming them with analysis of the community so they can make informed decisions that affect the health of Kansans.

A 2017 survey by the National Recreation and Park Association showed 85 percent of Americans seek high-quality parks and recreation amenities when choosing a place to live, and 95 percent believe it’s important for their local agency to protect the environment by acquiring and maintaining parks and trails.

“If people live in neighborhoods that have damaged sidewalks or not enough lights, or aren’t near pleasant parks or walkways, they won’t do it,” Pezzino said. “If they don’t have the transportation, they can’t go to places like Lake Shawnee or Gage Park.”

While the thought of trails passing by every neighborhood is nice, reaching the 150-mile total envisioned in the county’s master plan takes funding. McLaughlin said the community’s private companies have helped in that regard.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas made contributions to fund a fitness loop trail at the Shawnee North Community Center. The health insurance company sees obvious benefits from encouraging physical activity among residents and regularly awards funding to health initiatives in its 103-county service area.

BCBS partners with the Kansas Association for Youth in a “Be the Spark” program that provides grants creating the opportunity for middle school and high school students to be physically active. Another initiative, Pathways to a Healthy Kansas, promotes physical activity, nutrition and tobacco-free environments for 16 communities across the state.

“In my opinion, it makes sense for the industry we’re in to improve the health of the community,” said Marlou Wegener, chief operating officer of the BCBS of Kansas Foundation. “It’s a goal for us to place a strong emphasis on supporting the communities we serve.”

Azura Credit Union made a $180,000 gift for naming rights, trail markers and maps for Azura Trails at Skyline Park. McLaughlin said the 4.7 miles of trails, which cover Burnett’s Mound, wooded areas and prairies, offer the most panoramic views in Shawnee County. Before the signs were installed, most people didn’t even know the trails were there.

If the nearly 100 miles of additions are completed as planned over the next decade, the trails — and the opportunity for a healthier means of transportation — will be hard to miss.

“When thinking about changing behaviors, you need to be physically able to do it, of course, but you also need the opportunity and the motivation to make the change,” Pezzino said. “We need to make sure people have the opportunity to begin with. That alone might not be enough, but without the opportunity, people won’t have what they need to develop healthier behaviors.”

Reporter Morgan Chilson contributed to this story.

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Here’s How Cities Can Get the Most out of Their Parks

Neighborhood green spaces aren’t always living up to their full potential.

A neighborhood park can be a powerful tool to help nearby residents lead healthier lives. According to one study, every dollar spent on creating and maintaining park trails saves nearly $3 in healthcare expenses. And America is chock full of neighborhood parks: Across the country, there are over 9,000 local parks and recreation departments and more than 100,000 public park facilities.

Parks seem like an ideal place for Americans to meet the national recommendations for physical activity (an hour a day for youth and a 150 minutes a week for adults). But because neighborhood parks are rarely designed with urban health in mind, these spaces—which the study defines as anywhere from two to 20 acres—often don’t fulfill their potential as pieces of public health infrastructure. A new study by researchers from the RAND Corporation, City Parks Alliance, and The Trust for Public Land is offering some solutions.

Researchers analyzed 175 neighborhood parks in 25 major Americancities. From 2014 to 2016 they observed park use, park-based physical activity, and park conditions, as well as the way users felt about their local parks. The study points to tangible ways that cities can encourage residents to use parks more in general, and for physical activity in particular. Among those recommendations: better facilities, targeted programing, and more marketing.

“The first thing a park needs is facilities and amenities,” says Deborah A. Cohen, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. “Parks used the least are ones that didn’t have anything in them. To make a playground more attractive to kids, it’s got to have lots of different features—it can’t just be swings. Kids like spinners, they also like water features. Make sure there’s something there in the park people can come and see.”

Park usage varies based on different factors such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Poorer communities are less likely to be frequent visitors: In the study, a 10 percentage point increase in local household poverty correlated with a 12 percent decrease in park use. Research also shows that most parks are geared toward youth rather than adults. Nearly all of the parks in the study had outdoor basketball courts and baseball fields, but only a third had a walking loop. When they were present, these loops were the amenity that generated the most activity for adults and seniors. Researchers found that park usage skewed male (57 percent) and young—seniors represented only 4 percent of park visitors. However, seniors make up 20 percent of the general U.S. population; a marked effort at engaging them would increase overall park usage and likely help to make the demographic healthier.

The report argues that parks should cater to the various demographics in the surrounding community. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Targeted programming is key, says Catherine Nagle, the executive director of City Parks Alliance. Parks need to “provide professional staff to organize more programming locally that serves the needs of that particular neighborhood,” she says. Nagle observes that communities with young families sometimes want yoga classes for mothers and infants, while those with older or immigrant populations may have different needs. Additionally, supervised activities, such as dog training, increased average park use by 48 percent. Yet more than half of the parks surveyed had no supervised programming at all.

 
These activities draw residents in, Cohen says, because humans are social by nature. But you still need to get them to the park. “Facilities and amenities are important, but marketing is really important, because most people don’t know what’s available in their parks,” adds Cohen. Promotional materials would go a long way in bolstering park usage; materials like banners and signs advertising park activities led to more than 60 percent increase in both the number of park users and the number of hours those users exercised.

One of the largest barriers to building better park infrastructure and programs is budget. Out of the 119 park administrators surveyed in the study, half said their parks had gone through budget and staff decreases in the past two years. These budget shortfalls—and the ensuing decline in park hours and facilities—become a spiral.

Nagel believes there are ways to work around a lack of funding, largely by leveraging the resources of private companies, nonprofits, and other city agencies. She recommends that parks explore working with community health centers and hospitals to connect “physical spaces with health providers and insurance companies—the entities that are taking care of our health needs but not on the preventative sides.” Nagel cites the success of public-private partnerships like the one between the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation department and the nonprofit Los Angeles Parks Foundation. Working in tandem, the organizations have created neighborhood parks in underserved neighborhoods.

“Parks have an unrealized potential to improve everyone’s quality of life and longevity, and that’s been too neglected,” says Cohen. “We need to focus more on these wonderful community assets.”

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Cities Should Think About Trees As Public Health Infrastructure

 
 

Cities Should Think About Trees As Public Health Infrastructure

Planting trees is an incredibly cheap and simple way to improve the well-being of people in a city. A novel idea: Public health institutions should be financing urban greenery to support well-being and air quality.

Cities Should Think About Trees As Public Health Infrastructure
“It’s not enough to just talk about why trees are important for health.” [Photo: Claudel Rheault/Unsplash]

Think of a tree-lined street in the midst of a busy city. It feels like something of a treasure: hushed, cool, and sheltered from noise and sidewalk glare.

These leafy streets cannot afford to be seen as a luxury, argues a new report from The Nature Conservancy. Trees are sustainability power tools: They clean and cool the air, regulate temperatures, counteract the urban “heat island” effect, and support water quality and manage flow. Yes, they look pretty, but they also deliver measurable mental and physical health benefitsto concrete-fatigued city dwellers.

So with evidence to back up all the benefits of urban greenery, TNC set out to answer, in this report, the question of how cities can develop innovative financial structures and policies to plant more trees.

Urban trees remove enough particulate matter from the air to create up to $60 million worth of reductions in healthcare needs. [Photo: Flickr user Helen Alfvegren]

It’s a particularly pressing question now, because despite overwhelming evidence testifying to the environmental and health benefits of urban trees, their presence is declining in cities across the U.S. Around 4 million urban trees die or disappear each year, and replanting efforts have failed to keep pace, even though a 2016 study on California from the U.S. Forest Service found that every $1 spent on planting trees delivers about $5.82 in public benefits.

 

Because urban trees are often slotted into the “luxury” or “nice to have” category in city budgeting decisions–certainly less prioritized than public safety and infrastructure maintenance–funding is often inadequate, and fails to treat trees as a long-term investment, and certainly not one that can deliver health benefits. The standard rate of investment in trees is around one-third of a percent of a city’s budget, says Rob McDonald, TNC cities scientist and lead author on the report. “It’s not enough to just talk about why trees are important for health,” McDonald says. “We have to start talking about the systemic reasons why it’s so difficult for these sectors to interact–how the urban forestry sector can start talking to the health sector, and how we can create financial linkages between the two.”

TNC estimates that coming up with the capital necessary to maintain our current urban canopy, and expand it to the point where it creates consistent health benefits, would require an annual investment, on average, of $8 per person–a sum that would just about double current municipal tree-planting budgets. That figure is hypothetical and meant to suggest not that funding for trees should actually come from U.S. residents, but that the project is well within the scope of affordability.

What if, McDonald asks, that funding could come from the health sector? A 2013 study found that urban trees remove enough particulate matter from the air to create up to $60 million worth of reductions in healthcare needs at the city level. If public health spending in cities increased by just 0.1% or $10 per person, that would create enough public investment to finance the maintenance and expansion of urban forests and deliver the resulting health benefits. Again, this is just a rough model, but the case for treating trees as infrastructure that supports public health, and eventually could reduce the need for spending in that sector, is strong.

“We have to start talking about the systemic reasons why it’s so difficult for these sectors to interact–how the urban forestry sector can start talking to the health sector, and how we can create financial linkages between the two.” [Photo: Flickr user Veni]

There’s a wrinkle in this idea, McDonald says, and it derives from the fact that while cities are the agencies that pay for trees, they do not necessarily oversee health spending. That often falls to the state, or large local insurers. “But one big goal of this report is to get a variety of health agencies to see that they should be participating in the urban greening conversation,” McDonald says. In fact, the Affordable Care Act has created a $16 billion prevention fund to be funneled into communities working on widespread health-supportive initiatives; urban trees, McDonald says, could fall under that purview. And Kaiser Permanente, a large insurer in Northern California, announced last year a $2 million investment in public parks in low-income communities in the Bay Area.Diversifying funding sources for urban greenery–and casting trees as a health investment–could also begin to close the socioeconomic gap in access to parks and green space, too. A 2013 UC Berkeley study found that compared to white people, black people were 52% more likely to live in sparsely shaded, and consequently, much hotter, parts of the city, and have less access to green spaces. While initiatives like New York City’s Million Trees NYC have made a concerted effort to create more equity when it comes to green space in the city, often, trees are added to neighborhoods only at the behest of community groups. Those with more financial resources, McDonald says, are often more likely to make and be granted those requests.

Creating greener cities cannot be the responsibility of the health sector alone; McDonald says it will be crucial for urban forestry departments to more fully integrate the health benefits of their trees into messaging and goals in order to break down city agency silos and communicate more effectively with urban health and planning departments. And of course, as more and more cities develop strategies to create resilience against climate change, a healthy urban canopy will be a hugely necessary component.