The Atlanta BeltLine provides a prescription for a healthy city

By Guest Columnist VALARIE WILSON, executive director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership

With so many critical needs – education, health, jobs and more – why would we as community leaders and engaged citizens focus now on parks, trails and transit? While they are nice amenities, shouldn’t we concentrate on serious problems during these challenging times?

Obesity is deadly serious – now the second leading preventable cause of death in the United States. And hypertension is the leading preventable cause of death in the world. So it is heartening that the conversation around complex and often overwhelming healthcare policy topics is shifting to focus increasingly on prevention.

We are much better served by investing resources in keeping people fit and healthy than in spending later to address the even higher costs of disease – including obesity and hypertension.

Healthier citizens and employees result in lower healthcare costs and fewer missed days of work, lower turnover and a more productive workforce. Among physically able adults, average annual medical expenditures are 32 percent lower for those who achieve physical activity targets than for those who are sedentary.1

Of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home, 43 percent achieve physical activity targets, compared with just 27 percent of less walkable area residents.2 So our investment must begin with our sidewalks, parks, trails and other aspects of our built environment.

As it stands, our built environment is not always supportive of physical activity and active lifestyles, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. As the Health Impact Assessment conducted for the Atlanta BeltLine by Georgia Tech’s Central for Quality Growth and Regional Development revealed, these communities have higher death rates for diseases related to physical inactivity, specifically heart disease, cancer and diabetes. They lack access to infrastructure and services, and their unsafe physical environments prohibit healthy activities.

The good news is that even modest increases in physical activity have the potential to produce significant health benefits. Participating in regular physical activity starting at an early age appears to have lifelong health benefits in terms of early muscle, bone, and joint development as well as weight control, high blood pressure prevention, and feelings of depression and anxiety. And regular physical exercise has been found to improve self-image, self-esteem, physical and mental wellness, and overall health.

Atlanta’s public and private sectors (including Atlanta BeltLine donors Kaiser Permanente and PATH Foundation/Sarah and Jim Kennedy) are investing in the sort of built environment that creates more opportunity for physical activity – ultimately impacting our health spending bottom line.

With trail segments already open and benefitting neighborhoods in the West End, the Atlanta BeltLine will soon break ground on another 2.5 miles of 14-foot-wide trail connecting Freedom, Piedmont and the Historic Fourth Ward Park in progress – and then five neighborhoods along the way.

Atlantans using this East Side Trail (the corridor for which many Atlantans are already hiking) are projected to increase their average time of exercise per week by 30 minutes within the first year of opening.

And students from nearby Atlanta Public Schools will use the trail to improve their physical fitness. In building the trail, the corridor for transit will also begin taking shape – and that transit will also impact health and health costs. Like trails, access to transit will provide more physically and economically disadvantaged Atlantans in particular access to medical services and the ability to obtain healthy, affordable food.

Like everything about the Atlanta BeltLine, its intended impact is not only the 45 neighborhoods around its 22 miles encircling the city. It challenges us to think more broadly about how to affect this change across our city and region. As leaders and engaged citizens, we must challenge ourselves to consider the potential health benefits and consequences of our public policies and investments in infrastructure.

Addressing spiraling healthcare costs begins with investing our infrastructure dollars in rebuilding communities that give people safe access to recreation, fresh foods and healthcare. The physical foundation of our healthcare system must be sidewalks, transit, park, trails and other safe places to walk, bike, skate and play.

1 – Victoria Transport Policy Institute: “Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits.” June 14, 2010.
2 – Powell, K.E., Martin, L., & Chowdhury, P.P. Places to walk: convenience and regular physical activity. American Journal of Public Health, 93, (2003): 1519-1521.

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