Mayor’s Challenge: How Huntsville works to make our city healthy

single-meta-cal August 9, 2017

The City’s Healthy Huntsville initiative captured the attention of the Alabama Task Force on Obesity. The team hosted their quarterly meeting in Huntsville and invited Mayor Battle to speak about the innovative ways he is tackling the problem. Here is part of the Mayor’s address to the membership. 

Obesity isn’t a subject on which I am an expert, but it is a topic I find vitally important to the prosperity and quality of life of our community.

Mayors don’t typically get too far down in the weeds on a subject like this, but when we see a problem – or a looming crisis – it is our job to tackle it.

And, here’s the problem –  1 in 3 kids are obese.

Here in Alabama, we have the second highest obesity rate in the country, and the third highest rate of diabetes – just behind Mississippi and West Virginia.”

The number of young adults in our state being diagnosed with diabetes is growing faster than any other age group.

Look at the adults. 35.7% of adults in Alabama are obese and another 33% are overweight. This means 69% of Alabamians have a weight problem.

And if you have a weight problem, it likely means you have other health issues – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, which leads to strokes, heart attacks and so on.

In North Alabama, we fare slightly better. Our obesity ratings are the lowest in the state – at 30.6%. But, it’s still way too high.

The cost of this epidemic – and it is an epidemic – the cost to our state, our cities, and our communities is big.

When someone is in poor health, it impacts every aspect of his or her lives. And that impacts every aspect of our community from our workforce to our health care system. Ultimately, we all pay the price.

What is a mayor to do? In 2012, we started the Healthy Huntsville initiative along with our partners at HudsonAlpha, Huntsville Hospital, the Madison County Health Department and Huntsville City Schools. Healthy Huntsville gives us a platform to show that we are serious about fighting obesity.

Changing government behavior

As we moved forward with Healthy Huntsville’s free exercise classes, walking events, and tips on healthy eating, it got us to thinking about other ways government could make a difference.

If we’re going to fight sedentary lifestyles and keep off the pounds, we needed to make some long-term changes.

For the City, we recognized that meant looking at everything from our transportation network to zoning and economic development.

The big question. Have we, the City, unintentionally built barriers to healthy living?”

Let’s start with transportation – more specifically – our cars. We love our cars, and our cities are designed around our vehicles and not people.

For most of us, it isn’t easy or even practical to walk from our homes to work. To the grocery store or drug store. How about to the park, or dinner and a movie?

There is a nationwide conversation about how our cities are structured and how that plays into our daily health. Cities built for cars are hotter because of all of the asphalt. They’re more congested, more polluted, and stressful because of the long distances between commutes.

Our nation’s urban planners have been ahead of us on this topic and leading the way on rethinking the way we develop. You’ve heard the term “live, work, learn, and play?” Turns out that’s exactly what millennials want. And seniors. And just about everyone else in between.

People want to live in a place where they can walk or ride a bike to most of their needs and wants.

Cars are still important, and we absolutely need to keep up with our infrastructure, especially in our key corridors, but there is a definite cry – a demand – for communities that offer a healthy environment structured on safe connectivity.

Looking at The BIG Picture

While having these conversations, we embarked on our BIG Picture comprehensive master planning process, and we started looking at how we could make these changes. The planners call it “placemaking” and we call it common sense. It’s creating a place where people would want to live, with a high quality of life.

First, we want to offer more transportation options, like better sidewalks, greenways, and bike lanes.

Research tells us that a bike-friendly city is one of the key criteria millennials look for in a city. If you are not attracting millennials, you are not capturing your future workforce.”

Our zoning regulations require all new developments to have sidewalks. It’s much easier and less expensive to do this when you are building new that when you try to retrofit.

For existing areas, we’re trying to prioritize our dollars by building sidewalks where connections to services are key.

We have 24 miles of greenways built throughout the city that are incredibly popular with our residents. Our greenway master plan calls for 200 miles of greenways – another expensive undertaking. One that could take decades to build.

To expedite the greenway plan, we looked at other resources in our community and decided to partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama. They are experts in acquiring land, through donations and purchases, and we found that two heads working toward this effort were definitely better than one.

By combining the expertise of our two entities, we are shifting plans to capture some easy wins – expanding some trails and identifying new greenways that aren’t just for recreation.

And, frankly, our greenway plan had been designed for recreational purposes only and not as a method of getting someone from point A to point B. And that was where we were dropping the ball.

Once we considered greenways as both a recreational option and a safe walkway or bikeway to work, shopping or entertainment, things started to change.

We just approved the Dry Creek Greenway, a new urban greenway segment in the Village of Providence. This greenway will ultimately connect with the Indian Creek Greenway, giving residents access to Cummings Research Park and nearby retail and restaurants.

Our thinking became even more ambitious when we decided that for our greenway network to be most effective, we needed a way to get from East Huntsville to West Huntsville, across U.S. Highway 231 Memorial Parkway.

Our urban planners have proposed a stunning architectural bridge that arcs over the Parkway, connecting a downtown greenway to the Lowe Mill neighborhood. That, in turn, will connect to Brahan Spring Park, John Hunt Park, and ultimately down to the Tennessee River. To the north, it will traverse up to Alabama A & M University. To the west, it will connect to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. That’s connectivity!

To pay for the bridge, we are applying for a federal grant. We may not win, but we think we have a good case. If we don’t get the grant, we’ll figure out a way through our capital plans. I believe we are on the right track in this thinking.

And there’s plenty of proof that this model works as a catalyst for urban renewal. New York, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Greenville have all revolutionized neighborhoods by incorporating these urban trails. They aren’t just good for your health. They are good for business.

Cycling and walking are key

The same is true with bicycling. For years, we have slowly worked to mark our roads for a bike network, but our cyclists really don’t feel safe. And, frankly, many of our motorists would prefer cyclists stay off the roads.

Here again, research tells us that a bike-friendly city is one of the key criteria millennials look for in a city. If you are not attracting millennials, you are not capturing your future workforce.

Every city is trying to recruit highly educated 20-somethings. That’s how you drive the economy in this digital age. These highly educated young people don’t want to live in a community that doesn’t value its health. They don’t want to be in a community that isn’t walkable or bikeable.”

Again, our BIG Picture master plan did a deep dive into bicycling, and we know what we need to do. How to get there takes time and commitment, but we’re not waiting. We start with the low hanging fruit.

Thanks to a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama and others, we launched Blue Bikes in our downtown area. It’s a membership, bike-sharing program where you can check out a bike with your phone and leave it at another drop off point. It’s been very successful so far, and we’ll look to expand this concept to other areas.

We won a grant from Smart Growth America for a complete streets workshop, and that was terrific. SGA brings some of the brightest urban planners and traffic engineers to your city to meet with your municipal experts. It helps you put fresh eyes on possibilities.

As a result of our workshop, the City is proceeding with its first retrofitted multi-modal corridor along Holmes Avenue from downtown to the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Cummings Research Park. We call it our town to gown corridor.

When we’re finished in two years, the road will have safe bike lanes and wide sidewalks installed.

Earlier this month, our planning department hosted a widely attended public meeting to look at designs for another short bike-ped segment from Veteran’s Park downtown to Big Spring Park. This piece will extend the Gateway greenway and provide safe, people friendly access between two popular attractions.

We’re also looking at “traffic calming” some of our streets – especially in the downtown area where we have excess capacity. One example is Church Street. We could take one of the lanes and turn it into a protected two-way bike area with extra wide sidewalks on the other side. It’s a possibility worth exploring.

Another check box on our Healthy Huntsville list is our parks and recreation opportunities. Our goal is for every child to be within a 10- to 15-minute walk of a park. We’re improving our parks, adding more playgrounds, more athletic fields, and new fitness options.

Just recently, our Council voted to turn our 42-acre golf course into a multi-use park for bike trails and cross country running. The golf course was suffering from low attendance, and when the idea first surfaced to transform the property we were surprised at the overwhelming public interest in this new amenity. Lots of young faces showed up at City Council to support this change.

The City also invested $22 million into a new aquatic center – which includes a widely used warm water therapy pool. Now, we’re the hottest ticket on the swim circuit with three pools, seating for 2,000, and the largest venue in the State if not the southeast. It was good for our residents, good for our health, and good for economic development.

It appears the same will be true for the new cross-country and bicycling park, from what the Huntsville Sports Commission and Convention and Visitor’s Bureau are telling us.

In the Zone

Next, we’ve been taking a harder look at our zoning ordinances. As it turns out, they weren’t friendly to neighborhood farmer’s markets, so we fixed that.  Many of the local churches and non-profits now host weekly farmer’s markets. Having locally sourced fresh food is critical, especially in low-income areas.

We’ve learned we could do a better job promoting agriculture through our zoning. Think about turning an abandoned strip center into a hydroponic farm where there is a restaurant on site and people can dine on what is grown right there. Cities are having success with this model, and it’s one we’re examining, too.

Another zoning challenge is the way we traditionally separate uses, which serve to protect property owners from unwelcome neighbors, such as keeping residential apart from commercial. Think about a homeowner suddenly finding a gas station going up next door. But that type of zoning also means you couldn’t mix up these uses and have a loft apartment above retail. Or live in a building where you walk a few steps to a restaurant or small business. So we created a new zoning designation called C6 that allows for that mix.

And, C6 also relaxes our parking requirements. Anyone who has driven to a shopping center will find an ocean of asphalt. That’s a barrier for someone who wants to walk to a store, and it has turned out to be more parking than we needed.

So, you can see there is a lot a City can do to promote healthy living. As leaders, we lead by example. By creating healthy, walkable, safe cities that invite people to be active and connect.