Smart growth strategies for a public health problem in Louisville, KY

Bike racks have been added to many of Louisville's buses as part of the city's new initiative. Photo by Scott McIntyre for The New York Times
Over half of the residents of metropolitan Louisville, Kentucky, are considered seriously overweight, and obesity rates in the state have risen in recent years while reported outdoor physical activity has declined – despite public relations campaigns to promote biking and walking.

Now the city is trying a new approach to encourage its residents to get outside and get active. With help from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, Louisville is changing its streets and its infrastructure to make walking and biking more viable, attractive transportation options. Among the initiatives, Louisville recently built “the city’s first bicycle lane and ensured that the redevelopment of a low-income housing project included small ‘pocket’ parks, improved traffic patterns and wider and safer sidewalks.”

As an article in the New York Times explains, obesity is a serious health concern for the city but also poses a threat to Louisville’s economic viability:

[T]he foundation made its first grant when Jerry Abramson, then the mayor, had begun to worry that obesity was lowering Louisville’s attractiveness.

“For businesses, a healthy work force is more productive and less costly, so it became a competitiveness issue,” Mr. Abramson said. “Every city was offering tax incentives, every city was offering real estate deals but not every city had the weight problem we do.”

Mr. Abramson also began the Mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement, to engage the city’s agencies to reverse the obesity rate.

“The grant made us think about the problem differently, that it’s not just about smart growth, it’s not just about transportation, it’s not just about parks or better nutrition, it’s about all of those things and more,” said Mary Lou Northern, senior adviser to Louisville’s current mayor, Greg Fischer.

Designing places to better accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists gives people the option to incorporate exercise into their daily routines. Louisville leaders are working to make that happen, and in doing so are also creating the features more and more Americans want in their cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Read more: A City Tries to Slim Down [New York Times, June 13, 2011]