Cities make an effort to be exercise-friendly
For every driver who complains about having to stop for cars pulling in and out of the new middle-of-the-street parking stalls along 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City, there's a runner like Mardi Paxley who jogs in place and says thanks.
"Living in Utah definitely changed my exercise habits," says the 38-year-old pharmaceutical rep who relocated earlier this year. "It's colder here, for one thing, and the drivers are not the nicest when it comes to bikers or runners, I found."
On her lunchtime trots around town, Paxley often finds refuge from the traffic between the parking meters while waiting for the light to change.
Utah's capital city is known for its spacious streets, which according to lore were designed by Mormon leader Brigham Young to be "wide enough to turn a team of oxen around." But they can be frustrating to fitness nuts and even pedestrians who routinely cross them.
These days, things are changing for the better health and welfare of residents, says Jane Lambert, physical activities director of the Utah Health Department's Alliance for Cardiovascular Health.
It's a slow reversal of how things were 100 years ago, when the automobile began to become far more important than feet, Lambert says. Toward the middle of the 20th century, the culture of the car had taken over.
"They took the parking off the streets, built malls and people drove there and stayed there," Lambert said.
Rethinking design: Now, it seems even rising gas prices are conspiring to get people to think in terms of "walkable communities" and "active community environments," she says, using the language city planners use to describe modern designs.
Health department officials, hoping to improve the health of all Utahns, formed the alliance in 2000. Members include transportation officials, mayors, park and recreation managers and city planners who brainstorm ways to get cities thinking about making their cities more amenable to foot traffic.
"Putting parking and crosswalks in the middle of the blocks - all those things that are frustrating to drivers are actually beneficial for people who are walking or who try to lead physically fit lives," she says.
"Maybe it was done to bring shoppers downtown, but anything that encourages walking is going to help. Whether it's reducing pollution or increasing the health of the public, there are so many benefits."
To that end, Utah's capital city just launched its Salt Lake City Gets Fit Together, a 12-week program to help city employees improve their health by tracking the number of steps they take each day. Organizers hope the program inspires residents to join the march.
Mayor Rocky Anderson said the program also could reduce air pollution and give a boost to community businesses.
"As people try to get in their 10,000 steps a day, we expect they will walk around downtown or their neighborhood," he said. "One of the most important aspects of this is that it will help build camaraderie in the community."
In many cases, state and local governments end up spending money. It could be something as simple as expending manpower on snowblowing paths in the winter or as complicated as looking for the few remaining opportunities to set aside valuable tax-generating land for trails, recreation centers and open spaces.
The Davis trails plan: In its master plan, Davis County, for example, included a shoreline trail along the Great Salt Lake. That led to a similar project in the hillsides, where millions of dollars each year are generated from property taxes on multimillion-dollar homes. While the cities are implementing the plan piece by piece, the project almost came too late.
"The trail is down to no more than a wide sidewalk in parts of Bountiful and North Salt Lake," says Bountiful City Planner Aric Jensen, who oversaw the project for the county.
While there are no studies to show a cut in obesity rates or improved health of the population, officials say the rewards are apparent now and could be in the future.
"I'd say quality of life is a driving factor and people want nice things for their kids," says Davis County Commission Chairman Dannie McConkie. "But, in our county, we are looking at the next 10 years when our elderly population will surpass our current school enrollment. So, if people take some initiative to get active, it may end up saving us some money down the road, in terms of aging services."
In some cases, cities have been able to turn over the costs to developers looking for a public relations coup.
In West Valley City, there's a commercial strip near 3500 South running from Redwood Road to Valley Fair Mall, and the city requires a new section of a 10-foot-wide pathway to be built along with every new development along the way. Wal-Mart is probably going to abide by a similar requirement around its proposed 22-acre development in Centerville.
"It used to be the standard for most cities where the city would maintain a 5-foot-wide parking strip and a 5-foot-wide sidewalk around every development and the developer would be responsible for buffering their property," Jensen says. "But if you flip-flop those requirements, you get a nice 10-foot-wide urban trail away from the street."
But not every new community development needs to be done on the planning and zoning level. Individuals need to take the initiative in their own communities, says Shirley Spain, a West Jordan fitness advocate.
Spain, who once weighed 270, lost 100 pounds at home and walking around her own neighborhood before venturing into a gym, where she trimmed off nearly 50 more pounds. To help channel her newfound energy, she answered an ad in the community newsletter asking for volunteers to work on West Jordan's Healthy Communities program.
"When I got there, it was all about bike helmets and child-safety seats," she says. "That's great. But I wanted something that would help people like me get more physically fit and healthy."
She got permission from the city to organize a health walk. Nearly 300 people turned out for what Spain hopes will become an annual event. Now a certified personal trainer, Spain is organizing a Happy Healthidays weight loss contest for water aerobics patrons at the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center.
Other people often comment to Spain that they wish someone in their own town would take an interest in organizing healthy activities for their neighbors.
She always tells them: "There is someone who wants to - you."