Exercise Opportunities are Part of Designing Healthy Cities

The secret ingredient to designing healthy cities may be including enough exercise opportunities. Can cities become fitness accountability partners?


Many U.S. colleges combine health and urban design into degree tracks. One example is the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, where students are encouraged to seek a Graduate Certificate in Healthy Cities. The certificate provides them with the “language, skills and competencies needed to engage in cross-disciplinary collaborations among public health workers, policy makers and city planners to promote human health in urban contexts,” according to the college’s website.

Students study the interdisciplinary relationships linking policy making, health science and spatial planning in a systematic manner, according to the college, to meet the future health challenges of global urbanism by designing healthy cities.

Cities in Europe and North America are already places of unprecedented health crises, according to the program:

Rising rates of cancer, obesity, asthma and other chronic health concerns are pushing public health workers, policy makers and city planners to reexamine the relationship between urban space and public health.”

U.S. cities that are finding ways to create urban designs promoting healthy lifestyles are recognized in annual lists of happiest, healthiest or most-active American cities. Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, are three cities that notably serve their citizens as fitness accountability partners, of sorts.

Overall Fittest City: Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital was ranked No. 1 in a 2015 study of the health and community fitness status of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. “Actively Moving America to Better Health,” published by the American Fitness Index, said the city’s population has:

  • Lower percent with angina or coronary heart disease
  • Lower death rate for cardiovascular disease
  • Lower death rate for diabetes

Reasons cited by the study for D.C’s healthy results:

  • Higher percent of city land area as parkland
  • More farmers’ markets per capita
  • Higher percent using public transportation to work
  • Higher percent bicycling or walking to work
  • Higher WalkScore
  • Higher percent of population within a 10 minute walk to a park
  • More dog parks per capita
  • More park units per capita, aka “ParkScore
  • More recreation centers per capita
  • More swimming pools per capita
  • More tennis courts per capita
  • Higher park-related expenditures per capita
Cross-Training City: Boulder

Bicycling and access to various other physical pursuits have made Boulder the Happiest City on the U.S., according to a study by author Dan Buettner and Gallup’s social scientists.

National Geographic published results. “Per capita, more people walk to work in Boulder than in any other city in the U.S.,” according to the article.

Low rates of smoking and obesity, and high rates of exercise, contribute to the satisfaction locals feel. Life is not always rosy in the Rockies — stress is on the rise; on average, 49 percent of locals surveyed reported feeling stress — but the qualities that keep Boulder on top make this city America’s happiest.”

According to Organic Authority, renowned bicycle culture is a top driver for its public health statistics, along with opportunities to walk and hike about. In “The 5 reasons the city of Boulder is full of fit and happy people,” hundreds of miles of pathways, lanes and underpasses can be used year-round, and the public transportation system was cited for its quality. Boulder’s sunny, dry climate and mountainous terrain, also contribute to its happy disposition, according to Organic Authority. The city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department seeks to make exercise opportunities inclusive and has detailed 30 sites with disabled access.

Bikers’ City: Portland

The City of Roses is also known for its bicycle culture. CNN Travel this summer, along with an Gov1 columnist, named it one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country.

“The groundwork for the city’s bike infrastructure was laid over 20 years ago,” Brian Zeck, bike manager Portland’s River City Bicycles, told CNN. “It has built upon itself over the years and bicycling has become somewhat ingrained in the culture of the city.”

Portland has 106 kilometers of bike paths, 48 kilometers of low-traffic bike boulevards and 283 kilometers of bike lanes. Around 2,100 races, rides and other biking events are held in Portland each year. Eight percent of city residents now say biking is their primary form of transportation, and a bike is a secondary vehicle for 10 percent.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.

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