Using complete streets to fight obesity in Jefferson County, AL

The Walking School Bus program, made possible by funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is a great example of the momentum for Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School and improving the built environment in Jefferson County.
In 2007, over 100 organizations in Jefferson County, Alabama formed the Health Action Partnership, a collective effort aimed at making local neighborhoods healthier places to live, work, learn and play.

Reducing obesity was the Partnership’s main objectives from the outset, as Alabama’s obesity rate is the second highest in the nation. Recognizing that lifestyle change is critical in achieving this goal, the Partnership wanted to increase activity levels in the everyday lives of Jefferson County residents.

The organizations soon realized one answer to reducing obesity had been right beneath their feet all along: Complete Streets.

Making improvements to streets, sidewalks and paths would promote physical activity by making it safe and convenient for residents to walk outside for recreation, and would also makes it easier for them to incorporate functional walking and biking into their day-to-day lives.

Jefferson County’s streets are not currently friendly to pedestrians: most of the county’s sidewalks haven’t been updated in the past 50 years, and many are torn up or unsafe. Birmingham, the state’s largest city, also is just beginning to get back on its feet after a series of destructive tornadoes in 2011, which caused more than a billion dollars of property damage. Street safety is no minor problem, either: Alabama ranks fifth in the country for pedestrian deaths.

Since the Partnership came together, it has sought to leverage funding from a variety of sources to address local issues of public health and safety. One of the largest funding sources thus far has been a $13 million Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded in 2010. A portion of this grant is dedicated to fighting obesity in Jefferson County’s 35 municipalities.

Through the built environment focus of the grant, the Jefferson County Department of Health, United Way of Central Alabama, Conservation Alabama Foundation, YMCA of Greater Birmingham, Freshwater Land Trust (FWLT) and the Jefferson County Commission worked to specifically address street safety issues and encourage the creation of walkable communities.

“This was a rare opportunity for us to go back and retrofit Jefferson County communities, and the Partnership is making a conscious effort to make sure we do it right,” said Adam Snyder, Executive Director of the Conservation Alabama Foundation.

Map of the Red Rock Ridge & Valley trail system, courtesy of
FWLT had already wanted to plan a network of trails throughout the county, and was seeking funding opportunities to design it. With the CCPW grant, FWLT would create a plan to develop a trail system to connect safe streets with local neighborhoods and natural spaces, while the Conservation Alabama Foundation would use its policy expertise to promote safe streets.

The Conservation Alabama Foundation decided to approach obesity by promoting policies for complete streets, or streets that are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users.

“Complete streets policies make it safer for people to get around by foot, bike or mass transit,” Snyder said. Common complete streets policies include adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks and installing crosswalks.

So far, the Conservation Alabama Foundation has helped to pass ten complete streets policies in Jefferson County. The Partnership is now looking to start the policy implementation process by bringing in trainers from the National Complete Streets Coalition.

“These policies not only have the impact of revitalizing communities, but also promoting physical activity in our area where the obesity rate is over 30 percent,” said Amanda Storey, Assistant Vice President of Community Health & Wellness at the United Way of Central Alabama.

FWLT’s efforts, meanwhile, led to the creation of a plan to develop the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System. The plan is for a set of seven main trail corridors that connect Jefferson County municipalities, designed to provide residents with more options for physical activity and community transportation.

Safer streets from complete streets policies, along with interconnected trails, are intended to provide greater options for residents to safely get to and from their destinations without a car. Municipalities in Jefferson County are currently exploring funding options to build the trail system.

For Birmingham, the countywide push for more walkable neighborhoods has given the city an opportunity to create a city-wide redevelopment plan, which includes a focus on complete streets. With tornado damage and neighborhoods that haven’t seen much change in the past half century, there is no better time to for the city to create a plan for its future development prospects.

Just last week, Birmingham learned it was awarded a $10 million TIGER grant from the US Department of Transportation for complete streets projects in its historic Civil Rights district. Rebuilding the Birmingham-area roads network will reconnect residents with public transit hubs, schools, employment centers, recreational facilities and historic Civil Rights destinations.

“We look forward to seeing how these efforts will rebuild our communities in a way that will be healthier and more economically sustainable,” said Snyder.

Complete Streets