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Utah cities starting to consider lifestyles when approving developments

Published December 7, 2009 1:05 am

Health » Most require sidewalks and bike paths, which helps increase physical activity.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Shaunna Burbidge wants city planners to think like public health workers.

Instead of discouraging healthy behavior -- some Utah cities don't require sidewalks and officially disdain bicycle lanes -- she says it's time they recognize they are on the front lines of making Utahns fit or fat.

So the professor, who teaches both planning and health, undertook a six-month-long effort to survey Utah cities' ordinances to see whether they promote healthy behaviors such as walking, biking and eating nutritious food.

"We wanted to find out if cities are moving in the right direction, if they're realizing what they do in regard to land use and transportation actually has a public health impact," says Burbidge, who conducted the study earlier this year while she was at Brigham Young University. She now teaches at the University of Utah.

Her conclusion? Most cities don't have strong ordinances in place.

The Utah Department of Health backs her finding. It laments in its 10-year plan to combat obesity that Utah's norm is neighborhoods that discourage daily physical activity because of poor design or dangerous streets.

Just ask the health department's physical activity coordinator.

"If I were to step out to go to lunch, I'd be concerned [about walking] both where I live and where I work," Brett McIff said.

His Taylorsville neighborhood has no sidewalks. He said his neighbor drives just to travel two doors down.

McIff added he had to press his city to include a crosswalk for a redesigned intersection on Redwood Road.

"My wife and I asked, 'have you thought about what happens to the kids who walk to school?' " he recalled. "It was one of those, 'Oh yeah, we're supposed to think of that.'"

Because the pressing issues for cities tend to be financial in nature, they put the long-term benefits of healthy lifestyles on "the back burner," McIff said. "That back burner is starting to boil over."

The percentage of Utah adults who are overweight or obese has more than doubled in the past 20 years -- to 63 percent. Nearly one in five Utah third-graders are overweight, according to the health department, which helped fund Burbidge's study.

Under her direction, 25 BYU undergraduate geography students, with highlighters in hand, analyzed the zoning codes, master plans and ordinances of 81 Utah cities (with populations of 5,000 and above). They looked to see if cities had ordinances that:

» Require sidewalks, bike lanes, greenways and recreational facilities for new, redeveloped and mixed-use communities;

» Require new commercial buildings to encourage physical activity and bicycle and pedestrian commuter traffic;

» Require recreational shared-use paths that combine biking and walking.

The Centers for Disease Control says such features have been shown to increase physical activity by making it easy to incorporate walking and biking into daily life.

Burbidge's preliminary analysis found most Utah cities included half these types of ordinances. They most commonly require sidewalks, with many also requiring bike lanes.

But four cities don't require any of them, not even walkways, she said. They are Highland, Holladay, Roy and South Ogden.

Six cities had all the ordinances: Cedar City, Draper, Farmington, North Logan, Provo and St. George.

Cedar City manager Brian Maxfield said his city encourages developers to build parks at the corners of subdivisions to connect neighborhoods in order to make the city an attractive, unique place.

It just so happens that can also improve residents' health, he said.

The policies won't necessarily translate into fitter residents, Burbidge said, adding people still have to choose to use the sidewalks and bike paths. Her goal is for cities to give residents those choices.

Despite the lack of ordinances, Holladay is considered the state's third-thinnest community, according to separate health department data.

On the other hand, Roy, which also lacks the ordinances, is the fourth-fattest, with 67 percent of adults at an unhealthy weight.

Roy city manager Christopher Davis wasn't familiar with Burbidge's study. He said the city does require sidewalks, and he noted the walking paths it provides at city parks, and its plans to add one on a defunct railway bed.

Nobody appears to want bike paths, he noted, so they aren't required. "It's not been an issue that's come up."

Burbidge also highlighted cities with both innovative and "awful" approaches to health: La Verkin requires parks or open space with every new development. Saratoga Springs requires pedestrian connections between adjoining developments; North Salt Lake has a recreation master plan to identify future needs.

Meanwhile, Fruit Heights tells developers they don't have to install sidewalks if they are only for health or recreational purposes. Brigham City prohibits playing on sidewalks or sledding in parks. Centerville's general plan says it is best not to encourage street bike routes.

"We need to update that general plan," said Centerville city manager Steve Thacker, who didn't realize it was still on the books. He said the city doesn't follow it, recently painting bikeways on a street in September.

The state health department plans to use Burbidge's findings to help cities change their policies to make it as easy to walk and bike as it is to drive -- if that is what they want.

The health department has been invited to speak at Utah League of Cities and Towns conferences and is planning training sessions on how to write healthy ordinances.

McIff said cities must move beyond the self-perpetuating, car-centric cycle. "Everybody drives. Why do they drive? Because it's hard to do anything else."

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What cities can do to prevent obesity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in July saying communities must transform into "places that support and promote healthy lifestyle choices." Besides adding bike lanes and sidewalks and calming traffic, it advocates:

» To make healthy food more affordable (or junk food more expensive) at food venues under government control, or ban junk food altogether in vending machines on government property.

» To provide incentives for grocery stores to open in underserved areas

» To add farmers markets

» To limit portion sizes of food served in government buildings

» To require child-care facilities to ban soft drinks and limit juice

» To provide breast-feeding accommodations at government facilities