ST. ALBANS — In the midst of the St. Albans Town Educational Center’s morning drop-off chaos, involving cars, crossing guards and coffee, Mark Fenton picked out two things Thursday: young students playing a running game, and then…

“Hey look, a bicycle!” Fenton said, pointing enthusiastically to Route 7.

Shortly thereafter, Fenton found a wooded path used by some SATEC students along the St. Albans State Highway (SASH) access. A half-dozen students walking through told him they used the path every day, and he eventually followed their steps to where they crossed SASH and Route 7 intersection.

They waited on the corner before dashing across a faded crosswalk, as cars around them stopped in the middle of the road. After being told St. Albans Town voters said “no” to a $1.76 million bike and pedestrian path running between SATEC and Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center along SASH, Fenton responded, “Nobody who voted saw this.”

Fenton, a Massachusetts-based national public health, planning and transportation expert (and a previous member of the U.S. national race walking team), would go on to observe the walkability and bikeability, or lack thereof, in St. Albans City and Town, Swanton and Highgate Thursday.

On Friday, Fenton – as part of a three-day visit orchestrated by Northwestern Medical Center lifestyle medicine health educator Amy Brewer – presented his findings at a meeting held at Swanton Village. About 50 attendees including town managers, state representatives, local and regional planners, state officials, health advocates and active community members listened to his message.

Referencing the SATEC students using the path and risky crosswalk, Fenton said, “Those kids are doing the right thing, but we’re not helping them by design.”

The big picture

Physical activity, is one of the two main factors for public health, Fenton told his audience. The second is eating a nutritional diet.

“We can’t be comfortable with where we are,” he said, going on to list some “disheartening” statistics.

Between 1969 and 2001, the number of American children walking or biking to school decreased from 40 to 15 percent. Kids going to school by car increased from 15 to almost 50 percent over that same period.

In addition, said Fenton, “Childhood obesity rates tripled over those same three decades. Those are not unrelated.”

While the recommended amount of physical activity is 30 minutes per day for adults and 60 minutes for children, according to the 2012 Leisure Time Physical Activity study done by the National Institutes of Health, less than 20 percent of Americans meet those recommendations.

Fenton said that there are an estimated 365,000 annual premature deaths due to physical inactivity and poor nutrition, which is only second to tobacco for mortality rates in America.

Why is this all happening? Fenton said the number of children who can do unstructured activities without parental supervision has also decreased dramatically. Parents who cite it being “not safe” for their children to, say, walk and bike alone to school, are wrong in one respect, though right in another, he added.

“I get the fear,” he said. “[But] let’s make sure we understand the facts, here.”

Increase in violent crime towards children over time, he said, “is absolutely zero.” The physical landscape – roads, sidewalks, cars, that faded crosswalk to SATEC – is, however, an increasingly dangerous place.

And, said Fenton, there is a real risk of not letting children be free-range, keeping them inside and inactive. Diabetes is much more common among children, which not only decreases life expectancy but also increases healthcare costs.

Fenton’s main point: to increase public health, people need to be more physically active and need to eat better. But how to do this?

Telling people to do these things, said Fenton, was the main answer in the past. That method has proven not to work too well as many people quit exercise programs and eventually fall off their diet. But, he added, “Building healthy communities, as it turns out, does.”


Building healthy communities

Incorporating physical activity and nutritional eating into a community’s makeup is the “sticky” way to do it, said Fenton. Those practices have to be supported on all levels: individual, interpersonal, institutional, community and public policy.

Fenton believes much can be done by creating walkable, bikeable communities. These are places, he said, that have a variety of uses within biking, walking or transit-distance. They offer networks for active or alternate transportation, functional and inviting sites for non-car commuters and safe and accessible places for all ages, incomes and abilities.

Many of these qualities can be accomplished through planning, said Fenton. This includes:

  • creating mixed use areas with compact neighborhoods and shared open space;
  • installing multi-use trails, bike lanes and “sharrows” (share the road arrows);
  • site design including benches, trees, and bike racks, buildings set near the sidewalk with parking on the street or behind the business;
  • designing for the long-term, using creativity to retrofit old malls or other inactive spaces;
  • and engineering for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, including using extended curbs and reverting diagonal spaces to reverse angled parking.

“This is a strategic way of design,” said Fenton.

Nutrition also can be supported through community gardens, zoning for urban farming, farmer’s markets, and regulating fast food drive-thrus and locations. Using zoning code, as opposed to zoning uses, can accomplish the last bit, said Fenton.

A culture shift also has to occur, he added, that sees physical activity and the infrastructure for it as a community health need. NMC’s RiseVT health initiative and newly approved $1.1 million investment towards community health is start, but that culture has to be incorporated into the nitty gritty.

So when it comes to those development review board meetings, said Fenton, pedestrian infrastructure should not be left out of a new development. “We expect you to take care of the sewage,” said Fenton of developers. “Why don’t we expect you to take care of the kids? It’s a cop out.”

Local citizens need to speak up too, said Fenton, to stand up to any people there who may be opposed to change or anything that slows development at the cost of public health in the long run. The facts show otherwise, he said: walk-able and bike-able areas have higher housing values, healthcare costs are reduced, and more people have access to businesses, creating a more attractive place for development.

“I know that guy is going to show up at the meeting,” said Fenton. “You need to show up, [too].”


Making change

Fenton spent the second half of Friday’s meeting helping St. Albans City and Town, Swanton and Highgate come up with more specific goals and strategies. He had one general suggestion for each community: create a vision team, made up of perhaps 10 people, who could incorporate public health into their jobs, come up with creative solutions and have reach and influence in the community.

With success, those committees’ efforts, Fenton said, will be part of a triple bottom line for each community: better health , better economics, and better environment.

And there’s just the general benefit of seeing more kids do what they like to do, and doing it safely: running around playing made-up games, unsupervised. That is, after all, what came natural to kids on Thursday, even at 7:30 a.m. on a 30-something-degree morning outside of SATEC.

“It’s tiny,” said Fenton. “[But] there’s hope.”