Winter 2018

Remaking Main Streets

Working in three very different places, certificate graduates are finding smart ways to make their communities healthier.

By Julie Flaherty

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Encouraging people to take fitness classes or join a gym is good, but many experts believe the best way to get people to exercise is to make physical activity part of the daily routine: walking to school, biking to work, strolling down to the post office. Whether a town is set up for that—with plentiful sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, shade trees, and shops and businesses you can reach without getting into the car—can make a big difference. That’s why the Friedman School created a course called Policy, Systems, and Environmental Change for Physical Activity, taught by Mark Fenton, a public health planning and transportation consultant, and Rebecca Boulos, NG13, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association. The course, offered through the Online Graduate Certificate Program, shows students how to assess what their communities need and then advocate for smart changes to the built environment. Here are a few of the ways graduates are putting what they learned into practice.

CONNECTIONS A new paved path will make it safer and easier for people to walk across Medford. It will also link up two of the city’s business districts.

Medford, Massachusetts

An Inviting Waterfront Walkway

Not long ago, Jen Valentyn noticed an odd path-to-nowhere near her son’s middle school. You could theoretically follow it to a waterfront park—if you hopped a fence and maneuvered through some private property. The only other way there meant dodging cars on one of Medford’s busiest roads. Thus began her campaign to create the Clippership Connector, a paved half-mile path that will provide a new way for kids to walk or bike to school, as well as connect two large waterfront recreation areas and two of the city’s main business districts. Commuters will be able to bike all the way from Somerville to Boston.

GREEN SPACES Residents of all ages will be able to use the path or recreation and commuting.

Valentyn, a volunteer with a grassroots group called WalkMedford, is one of many residents working to make the city’s built environment more conducive to physical activity. On some streets, they advocate for repainted crosswalks, new bicycle lanes, and curb extensions that jut into intersections, slowing traffic and making it easier for people to cross. On others, they want to see benches, updated bus shelters, and bike racks. To spiff up a highway underpass, WalkMedford applied for a grant and is picking an artist to create a mural. “There are literally hundreds of problem areas that we are trying to fix,” Valentyn said.

Taking the course with Fenton and Boulos gave her practical ideas for how to approach city officials and work with reluctant neighbors to get things done. Construction is slated to begin in 2018.

REST STOPS Parklets repurpose parking spaces and turn them into urban oases for walkers and bikers.

Wilmette, Illinois

Pop-up Bike Paths and Reclaimed “Parklets”

Drivers often don’t have much appreciation for cyclists and often don’t even want to consider bike lanes—especially if they mean losing on-street parking spots. To get the conversation started in her hometown of Wilmette, Illinois, Anne Nagle employed a new kind of demo: the pop-up bike lane.

POP-UP To introduce residents to the idea of protected bike lanes, Anne Nagle used planters and pumpkins to set up this temporary demo at a community event.

With a grant, Nagle bought traffic cones, stencils for painted lines, and collapsible planters that serve as a protective barrier. She then set up the temporary lane and invited people at a community day to try it out. “This bike lane is about you and me, people eight to eighty,” she explained. “It’s for all of us and our children as we get older.” Many saw that the lanes were more useful than they thought.

Nagle, an emergency medicine physician, knows how poor diet and lack of exercise lead to chronic disease. With permanent bike lanes, she could easily see many of her neighbors biking to the train station on their commute to Chicago. “People could do it as part of their daily routine, if we make it easier and safer to walk and bike,” she said. As a 2017 fellow of America Walks, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing walking and walkability, Nagle also recently submitted a plan for Wilmette that includes proposals for new sidewalks and a multiuse path. And knowing one way to get people moving is to give them rest stops, Nagle plans to introduce her town to parklets, which convert a couple of parking spaces in a retail area to a public space. Parklets, which usually have seating and umbrellas or potted trees for shade, are often located near cafes or bakeries, which can reap benefits. “You don’t have to buy anything,” she said, “but it does drive business.”

SHADE Shelters will keep bikes cool in the desert sun.

Camp Arifjan, Kuwait

A Healthier Military Base

Lt. Col. Angela Greenewald, a 22-year veteran of the Army, has long been interested in health. Looking toward a postmilitary career in nutrition, she enrolled in Fenton and Boulos’ course—which she completed while deployed in Kuwait—and realized how much the environment influences our behavior. The class gave her a chance to take a hard look at how her environment—Camp Arifjan in Kuwait—affects the health of her soldiers.

LANES A dedicated route for bikes will help military personnel safely navigate the camp.

On the base, some officers have access to cars, but everyone else relies on buses, bikes, and walking—in temperatures that can soar up to 124 degrees Fahrenheit. And those options aren’t great: Bus stops offer little shade, residences are a blistering two-mile walk for many, and if cyclists can get a bike from a wait list, they have to squeeze up against concrete barriers to avoid cars. All of this—plus a paucity of gyms on the base—conspires to keep 9,000 military personnel and contractors from getting enough exercise. When she started looking into these problems, she found engaged coinvestigators in the soldiers she worked with. “By the time it was over, most of my guys were like, ‘Every third street light doesn’t work’ and ‘I noticed that the crosswalks are not painted—you can’t see them,’” she said. “It was kind of a group effort with the folks I was deployed with.”

Greenewald came up with a set of proposals. At the top of her list: turning one of the four lanes used by cars on the one main rode into a dedicated bike lane. She would also like to see a canopy or shelters for the bikes to keep them out of the sun, and water coolers at the bus stops. She’s now taken her plan to base leaders, leveraging lessons she learned in class for creating community change. “Out in the real world you have mayors and public works people,” she said. “We have the same sort of thing, just on a smaller scale.”

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