If You Build It, They Will Walk

Mark Fenton wants your town to be healthy, and he’ll move mountains (or at least sidewalks and bike lanes) to do it

Mark Fenton

As the sedan cruises around a Massachusetts town, Mark Fenton juts his arm out of the passenger window like a zealous tourist, snapping seemingly random photos of crosswalks, traffic signs, rollerbladers, trash cans, jay walkers. The car comes to a stop, and Fenton sprints off, jogging down a bike trail to see what it connects to, what businesses are nearby, what drinking fountains and mile markers he can see. When he returns to the trailhead, his eyes, above his outsized handlebar mustache, twinkle with enthusiasm.

“This has the opportunity to be a little retail cluster,” he says to his hosts, who include the directors of the town’s public health, public works and family services departments. It’s not enough to have a nice paved trail for biking, he would argue. It has to connect to places that are useful or desirable—shops, restaurants, playgrounds, a post office, a corner store. “That’s where I want the brew pub,” he says as he scouts the nearby buildings. 

Fenton, a public health planning and transportation consultant, has worked with hundreds of communities across the country to make their streets more welcoming to foot and bike traffic. His goal is to change the built environment to get people moving more often under their own power.

“If you are trying to encourage people to be more physically active every day, how their community is designed has much to do with it,” he says. “If you have sidewalks, you are more likely to walk. If there is a nearby corner store or a park, you might let your child walk to destinations. If there are bike paths and bicycle lanes, you are more likely to ride a bicycle.”

Even something as simple as trees on the sidewalk can get people moving, he says. “For my 74-year-old mom in the summer, that shade may be the difference between her choosing to walk or not on a very hot day in August. So it’s functional.”

Fenton, an adjunct associate professor at the Friedman School, is teaching a new course starting in spring 2014 that will demonstrate how to do what he does: convince city councils to set building policies that promote physical activity. He will also offer the course as part of an online graduate certificate program called Developing Healthy Communities, which is aimed at midcareer public health professionals who need to understand the language that town planners, economists and politicians speak.

Bottom Line Benefits

Research has shown that if stores, post offices, libraries and playgrounds are closer to homes, people are more likely to stroll or bike to them, rather than jump in the car. Sidewalks, crosswalks, bike trails and bike lanes all correlate to more physical activity for the average resident. “Place matters,” Fenton says. A clean shopping area with wide sidewalks, water fountains, bike racks and benches not only gets people walking, it increases retail sales.

That last part—the economic bottom line—is usually what persuades a planning board to adopt Fenton’s suggestions.

“What sells? Simply telling people you should build this neighborhood this way because it’s good for the health of the community is not nearly as compelling as a recently published report by the EPA that connects smart growth with economic benefits,” he says. “That’s what they want to hear: Do I earn more dollars per square foot on a walkable street?”

Many of the things that make a community more walkable also make it more attractive to businesses and home buyers. Studies have shown that walkable communities saw house values hold steadier during the recession, which most likely kept tax revenues healthier, Fenton says.

People make light of the Boulder, Colorados that have invested a lot in these kinds of improvements, Fenton says. “But those are the places in which the Googles of the world want to locate their offices.”

Often, towns make decisions that save short-term dollars but have long-term health consequences. Fenton has seen countless examples of school boards that decide to build new schools on the edge of town, where the land is cheapest.

“They think they saved lots of money, forgetting that for the lifetime of the school, they are going to be paying to transport the kids by bus and by car,” he says. “And by the way, there is going to be a public health cost, because any number of children who might have bicycled to that school when it was in a neighborhood cannot do so anymore.”

The town he is touring has a similar problem, with so many parents dropping off their children by car that traffic around the schools is unbearable. Fenton suggests creating off-site drop-off spots, with safe walking routes to the schools. It not only relieves traffic; it ensures kids get some exercise getting to and from the building each day.

As the tour continues, Fenton takes note of the things he likes, such as a subdivision where a cut-through has been created to meet up with a walking trail and a new retail building that has rental properties on the second floor, above the businesses. Such “mixed-use” areas are some of his favorites.

Then the car turns into another subdivision with beautiful lawns and a long street to the main road. A young couple walks by, pulling two children in a red wagon. They are walking in the street, because there are no sidewalks out of the subdivision.

“You are looking at modern American suburbia,” Fenton says. For decades, particularly in the ’50s and ’60s, neighborhoods were designed around the needs of the driver, not the pedestrian. Whether it is returning a library book or picking up a gallon of milk, “every trip has to be by car,” he says.

The Walking Guru

Fenton has a lean runner’s build and a demeanor that crackles with kinetic energy. He talks almost as fast as he walks, which is fast. He tried out twice for the Olympics in the 50-kilometer race-walk event. Some know him from a PBS series he hosted, America’s Walking, or as the editor-at-large of Walking magazine. When it comes to walking, you could argue that no one knows more about putting one foot in front of the other.

He originally studied to be an engineer and got into the field of biomechanics. He worked at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and then at Reebok’s human performance lab, where he designed sneakers that would reduce the likelihood of injury for athletes.

“It was all great, but I realized the much deeper question is not how do we get elite athletes to be better at what they do, but how do we get the vast majority of Americans to do anything at all,” he says.

He, like so many other public health advocates, helped launch dozens of community walking initiatives. You know the kind: He whipped up enthusiasm in a town, encouraged everyone to wear pedometers and keep walking diaries and handed out countless water bottles and T-shirts with cute logos.

But the disheartening fact is “that approach has not worked,” he says. Despite all the community outreach, leisure time physical activity in the United States hasn’t increased significantly in 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fenton points to one exercise study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which people were given exercise instruction, including exercise bikes to use in their homes. They found there was a burst of exercise soon after the program started, but 18 months later, people were actually getting less exercise than before the intervention.

“Just telling people to get exercise does not move the ball permanently,” Fenton says. “We were still telling them to carve exercise time out of their day. After a while, life just gets in the way.”

The solution, he is convinced, is to make moving once again part of the routine. “What we really need to do is create a world where it is easier for people to be physically active as part of daily life, because not everyone is going to go to a gym or take a class.”

The data on the health benefits of sidewalks, crosswalks, bike trails and all the rest is out there.

Building Good Habits

What is harder to come by is research on how best to get the changes approved and implemented. Politicians are not necessarily thinking about the correlation between isolated housing subdivisions and childhood obesity rates. Public health officers often speak a completely different language from transportation planners and developers. Fenton tries to bridge the gap.

He recently was a guest lecturer for a Friedman School class on community and public health nutrition. The instructor, Assistant Professor Virginia Chomitz, N85, N92, asked her students to pretend they were standing before a town meeting to argue for, say, a new bike trail.

After hearing the excellent presentations, Fenton told them it isn’t enough to rattle off statistics on projected physical activity increases. If they want to get their proposals passed, they have to be ready to respond to the local mother’s concern that lights on the trail will keep her children awake at night. (Offer to limit the hours the lights are on.) They have to counter the DPW official’s argument that he doesn’t have funds or manpower to maintain a trail. (Show they can organize a volunteer brigade of trail keepers.)

“You’ve got to think about what the emotional reaction is going to be and how to respond to that,” he says, urging them to remember that from the town’s perspective, “not changing is easier than changing.”

Fenton estimates he was on the road 135 days last year, consulting with communities large and small. He would be happy to see more people fighting the fight. “We need to raise the next generation of professionals who are going to do this,” he says.  

For information on Developing Healthy Communities and the Friedman School’s other certificate programs, visit http://nutrition.tufts.edu/certificates.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine.

Back to Top