Opinion: The places we live, work and play: What’s health got to do with it?

By Kelly Dunkin

In recent years, a growing body of evidence strongly suggests that healthy places are conducive to healthier people.

For example, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that those who reside in neighborhoods where theres access to sidewalks and trails are twice as likely to get adequate physical activity. On the flip side of that coin, an analysis from the National Survey of Childrens Health found the odds of a child being obese or overweight are 20 to 60 percent higher in neighborhoods with no access to sidewalks, parks and recreation centers.

Like other states, Colorado faces serious health challenges as obesity rates rise. According to figures cited in the 2011 Colorado Health Report Card, 14.2 percent of Colorado children and 22 percent of Colorado adults are obese. Putting those figures in perspective, Colorado may be the leanest state in the nation right now, but if we reported those numbers in 1995, wed be the heaviest.

Though personal responsibility is a major contributing factor to health, its difficult to live healthy lives when communities lack infrastructure and facilities that encourage physical activity. Thats one of the many reasons the Colorado Health Foundation has joined a growing number of health-oriented groups in promoting and supporting the built environment.

Exactly what is the built environment? Here are two definitions: According to the Transportation Research Board, the built environment consists of the land-use patterns, transportation systems and design features that together provide opportunities for travel and physical activity. The Journal of Environmental Health defines the built environment as the human-made space in which people live, work and recreate on a day-to-day basis.

The built environment has long been familiar in urban-planning circles, but public health officials are also taking notice because of the role of place in improving physical and mental health. Its well-documented that neighborhoods with greater walk-ability have lower rates of obesity, depression and alcohol abuse.

Providing safe options for physical activity is one way we promote healthy communities a key ingredient to achieving our vision of making Colorado the healthiest state in the nation. Thats why we have funded a number of projects and initiatives to promote places where it is easier to engage in physical activity and make the healthy choice is the easy choice.

Here are a few examples of our work in this area:

* The Colorado Neighborhood Parks and Trails program The Foundation invested $2.8 million in the Trust for Public Land to ensure that people living in low-income neighborhoods in metro Denver have safe access to a park, garden or protected natural space close to home.

* The Freedom Park project In 2009, the Foundation awarded a grant to the Trust for Public Land to transform a dangerous vacant lot in the Westerly Creek housing complex into a playground, soccer field and community garden for residents. The park opened last June.

* Bennett Civic Park Trail Connection The Foundation issued a $150,000 grant to the town of Bennett that would construct a trail connecting residents to the towns trail system and a community center.

Along with those projects, the Foundation is launching an exciting new initiative called Healthy Places, which will use a community-led process to help up to three Colorado communities become healthier places to live, work and play.

This five-year, $4.5 million initiative is designed to inspire and support the development of healthy communities where it is easier for residents to walk, bike, exercise, play and engage in daily physical activity.

Later this month, the Foundation will release a request for participation (RFP) to begin the process of selecting up to three communities to work with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) on what could become a collaborative, built-environment makeover. ULI panelists with expertise in areas such as real estate development, public health, public-private financing, community development and community organizing will spend a week in selected communities, assessing their needs, interviewing stakeholders and making recommendations on ways to promote active living through changes to the built environment.

Communities that complete the panel process will have the opportunity to apply to the Foundation for funding to implement their plans.

A technical assistance provider will be selected to help communities plan for the ULI panel as well as to develop a how-to primer that can be shared with other Colorado communities interested in transforming their environments. And an evaluator will work collaboratively with Foundation staff to measure the effectiveness of the initiative in advancing the Foundations vision of making Colorado the healthiest state in the nation.

Were hopeful the Healthy Places initiative will inspire communities throughout Colorado to make health a core value in planning their communities.

And when that happens, well be taking a step, pedal, lunge, swim lap or jump in the right direction.

Kelly Dunkin is the vice president of Philanthropy for the Colorado Health Foundation.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.