Healthy Communities Are No Accident

By John W. Frece

Would you simply like to be able to walk from your home to the store? Or, to the doctor’s office? Is it easy – or difficult — to cross busy streets in your neighborhood? Are there sidewalks where you live? Or, do you have to rely on a car to go anywhere?

A recent report by AARP found that 40% of persons 50 and older say their neighborhoods lack adequate sidewalks. Nearly half — 47% — feel it is unsafe to cross streets near their homes. And about half of those who reported problems in their neighborhoods said if these safety factors were fixed, they would bike, walk or take the bus to meet their needs.

The good news is that many of the obstacles to creating more walkable communities can be fixed.

I have been working for more than a decade on public policy at the state and federal level to help local governments build infrastructure so that our streets, sidewalks, homes and transportation projects do a better job protecting public health and the environment. As Director of EPA’s the Office of Sustainable Communities — part of the President’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities — we have learned that healthy communities do not happen by accident, but are designed intentionally. In partnership with DOT and HUD, our three agencies have adopted a set of principles that specifically support existing communities, in part by providing them with more choices in transportation and housing. Our office offers a wealth of publications to help communities become smarter about how – and where – they build.

A growing number of communities have begun to adopt complete street policies. Transportation planners and engineers employ complete streets policies to ensure that roadways are designed in ways that support all potential users — bicyclists, pedestrians of all ages and abilities, public transportation riders, as well as cars.

That’s because there is a direct correlation between how we design the transportation networks in our communities and public health and safety. This year’s theme for National Public Health week — “Safety is no Accident” – recognizes the importance of designing options into the built environment.

Designing our built environment with a focus on connecting us with the places we frequent – shops, health care, parks, grocers, entertainment — can make it easier for us to make the healthy choice of getting around by foot or bike. And this can make all the difference.

About the author: John W. Frece is the Director of the Office of Sustainable Communities, within the Office of Policy at EPA. The Office of Sustainable Communities represents EPA in its Partnership for Sustainable Communities with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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