It Takes a (Small) City: Tackling Childhood Obesity with Complete Streets

Like policymakers across the country, officials in the small Hudson Valley city of Kingston, New York have found that tackling childhood obesity requires a big toolbox that includes both education and investment in safe routes for walking and biking. To this end, the city’s “A Healthy Kingston for Kids” initiative, funded by a $360,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), identifies development of a complete streets policy and law as a key goal. However, as noted by Dave Gilmour, the chair of Kingston’s new Complete Streets committee, getting there will take more than “simply writing good code with teeth.” The city officials and community organizations running the initiative will have to coordinate with a diversity of partners, embark on a grassroots education and advocacy program, and eventually build the community’s overall capacity for active living.

Kingston's historic neighborhoods are well-suited for walking and cycling, but elsewhere infrastructure is lacking.

Physically, Kingston has the potential to be a walkable and bikeable community. The city proper is only 3 miles across, and is relatively compact in its development pattern, with a total population of just under 24,000 people according to the 2000 census. Located on the Hudson River, the city is a gateway to an abundant array of recreational opportunities in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley region. However, its core is bisected by a four-lane road, Broadway, and many of its streets lack sidewalks or bike lanes.

Though Kingston was a key shipping hub in the days before railroads transformed the movement of freight in the region, the city now has a depressed urban core, with shuttered storefronts and unsafe streets. 19.6% of its residents (compared to 14% state-wide) and 26.5% of its kids are living below the poverty level. The well-known link between poverty and obesity is fully evident in Kingston—according to the Ulster County Health Department, about 44% of the children are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, compared to 33% of children across the country.

In January, RWJF awarded Kingston and 40 other communities across the United States multi-year grants to find community-based solutions to childhood obesity. The Foundation is the largest philanthropy dealing exclusively with improving health and health care issues in the US, and this $33 million dollar grant initiative, through the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities program, is the organization’s largest investment in childhood obesity to date. The grants targeted communities with high obesity levels exacerbated by other factors such as poverty, unemployment, crime, dangerous traffic, insufficient infrastructure, and poor food options. In New York State, three communities were awarded grants: Buffalo, Rochester, and Kingston.

For Gilmour, a certified planner, the first step is a thorough assessment of existing policy. To analyze the city’s “connectivity and circulation” capacity, the committee is using the Smart Growth Code and Zoning Audit, published by the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in 2007. Besides writing a Complete Streets policy and code for the city council to consider this year, Gilmour is hoping to embark on a cost-benefit analysis of a complete streets policy and identify one pilot project, such as revitalizing Broadway, to help kick-start the program. A separate committee, “Safe Routes to Schools and Parks,” is mapping the walkability of routes within a 2-mile radius of the schools and parks in the city, and two additional committees are addressing access to healthy foods.

Turning around the situation in Kingston will require a lot of work. According to Gilmour, Rochester and Buffalo have a jump-start in that their communities already have strong health and “active living” coalitions, whereas Kingston still must build such alliances to get to a city-wide vision of complete streets. “Capacity-building” was a phrase Gilmour repeated several times in the course of a conversation with MTR, referring to the need for such alliances and the need to get city and community economic development, public health, education, engineering, and planning organizations to work in concert.

The effort in Kingston mirrors the efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama and USDOT Commissioner Ray LaHood, who are spurring the national dialogue on how to get kids moving again. What cities like Kingston are finding is that they will need to work both on streets and on hearts and minds. In the Kingston suburbs, around the four o’clock school-bus hour, one can often see parents sitting in their idling cars at the end of 450- or 500-foot driveways. The school bus arrives, the child gets out of the bus and into the car, and the parent backs the car down the driveway, delivering the child home.

Photo: Daniel Case/Wikimedia Commons.

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