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Expert preaches how transportation, fitness and land-use can combine to build healthy communities

At a presentation this week in Columbia, public health, planning and transportation expert Mark Fenton will discuss ways in which community planning and design can promote wellness. The presentation is cosponsored by the Columbia Association and the Horizon Foundation.
At a presentation this week in Columbia, public health, planning and transportation expert Mark Fenton will discuss ways in which community planning and design can promote wellness. The presentation is cosponsored by the Columbia Association and the Horizon Foundation.(Submitted photo courtesy Mark Fenton)

Lecturing on the benefits of regular exercise won't change anyone's sedentary habits, but creating an environment that supports routine physical activity will.

That's the message that public health, planning and transportation expert Mark Fenton plans to deliver Thursday evening at the Oakland Mills Meeting House at an event open to all county residents. "To Your Health: How Community Design Can Promote Healthy Lifestyles" is co-sponsored by the Columbia Association and the Horizon Foundation.

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Fenton will talk about the carrots a community can dangle in front of residents by adapting its physical design to entice people to get places by walking and biking.

"This is a modern attempt to go back to the principles we really valued in America 50 years ago, when neighborhoods were walkable," said Fenton, a speaker and author who studied biomechanics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an adjunct associate professor at Tufts University's school of nutrition and policy.

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Fenton preaches four tenets for encouraging walking and biking: mixed land use, connectivity, site design and accessibility.

"We moved away from [some of those values]" with the advent of the suburbs, single-use zoning, the interstate highway system and increased reliance on the automobile, among other well-intended lifestyle changes, he said from his home in the suburbs of Boston.

"Now we've got to make a conscious philosophical decision to move back to [our original] principles of community design, because we are not moving the needle at all" on getting across the importance of regular physical activity for a healthy lifestyle, he said.

Fenton plans to supplement his knowledge of the county's "built environment" by taking what he calls "a windshield tour" — a ride in a car with a host or two, stopping to get out and walk around to see the community firsthand before his presentation.

"I will be taking photos and seeing how things are designed, so I can share examples that are relevant," he said.

Ian Kennedy, communications director for the Horizon Foundation, a county-based health and wellness philanthropy, acknowledged that Howard doesn't have a blank slate on which to affect change.

"We can't go back and start over, so we're talking about retrofitting roads and pathways," he said. "Folks should have the option to get where they're going regardless of their mode of transportation, and the county shouldn't implicitly or explicitly determine what that should be."

The tour will allow Fenton to personalize his talk, though many of the fundamentals he espouses are as applicable to a small town in Iowa as they are to New York City, he said.

The benefits of taking steps to decrease driving go beyond improving the personal health of residents, including considerable economic and environmental perks.

"A lot of people refer to this as the triple P's: people, prosperity and planet," Fenton said.

"We are geared toward efficiency and that often means getting places by car, and I don't blame people for that. The trick is to make it so much more appealing not to drive."

Jane Dembner, the Columbia Association's director of community building and open space, said the association wants to design a community for 21st-century living by ensuring that physical activity can be a natural part of everyone's routine.

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"It's not an overnight change, it's an evolutionary change," Dembner said. "Right now, the stars are aligned and everyone's talking about how we can make our roads and sidewalks usable and safe for drivers, walkers and bicyclists from 8 to 80."

Fenton stressed that he isn't trying to turn people into hard-core bicyclists or power walkers.

"We're trying to build a system so that you gain a proper reward for walking or biking," he said.

"What if you could ride your bike to a transit stop, park it there securely and then take a train into D.C., where there's a bike-sharing system that allows you to bike to your destination?"

People who walk or bike to their jobs or transit stops are considered "outliers," and they shouldn't be, Fenton said.

"If a modern dose of healthy physical activity is considered to be 30 minutes a day, then the person who walks 15 minutes to a bus stop in the morning and then 15 minutes back home in the evening achieves that," he said.

The same would be true for children who could walk to and from school, but instead are being driven by parents.

A May 2013 poll conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that relied on self-reporting showed that nearly 50 percent of Americans say they meet the recommended guideline of 21/2 hours of aerobic activity a week.

But another organization's study that relied on objective data collected from participants wearing pedometers revealed that as few as 5 percent of Americans log the recommended amount of activity, Fenton said.

"Humans are designed to be very, very active, and the diseases of a sedentary lifestyle are crushing our health care system," he said.

Some of the ways a community can alter its environment center on changes in planning and zoning policies, he said.

"A greater variety of land uses in close proximity" can spur a resident to walk or bike to those destinations instead of driving, Fenton said. "So the rules must be changed so we don't build [or create] any more bad stuff," such as huge parking lots and segregated land uses.

One way of accomplishing that — which Fenton stresses he is not recommending specifically for Howard County, but cites as an example — is to allow apartments over garages and in homes' basements to increase housing density and lure mass transit to the area.

Another hypothetical change would be to re-envision The Mall in Columbia, perhaps by creating a facing set of mixed-use buildings around its perimeter or building apartments on the second or third floor over retail shops to create the feeling of a walkable, livable Main Street.

"If we're going to turn the tide and incorporate physical activity into our lifestyle, the answer is to be within walking distance of key destinations," Fenton said.

"Many communities across the country are reevaluating their performance measures. My job is to show them their options."

To preregister for the Columbia Association event, which will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at 5885 Robert Oliver Place, go to caspeakerseries.eventbrite.com. For more information on the speaker, go to markfenton.com.

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