It's Heating Up in Des Moines

By Mark Fenton;
(Originally published on June 25, 2015)

I got my first taste of summer on a trip to Des Moines June 18-19, with beautiful sunny days and temperatures and humidity giving a tiny taste of what’s to come in July and August. These kids in Des Moines’ lovely downtown park are already figuring out how to beat the heat!


But what’s really heating up out there is the focus on building more walkable, livable communities. Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield was my host for two busy days, and their involvement illustrates three important steps forward. Walk, bike, and healthy community advocates should be ready to move decisively to capitalize on these critical trends.

1.    Encouraging personal stewardship is “in.” My first event was keynoting Wellmark’s quarterly leadership meeting, in which everyone from small project group leaders to top executives participated. I spoke about the need for all of us to take an active role in leading the way by speaking up for healthier zoning ordinances, Complete Streets, transportation trails, inviting site design . . . all the geeky stuff the WALC Institute works for across the nation. Wellmark then convened a panel consisting of folks doing just that, from leaders of Blue Zones businesses and communities in Iowa, to their own executive staff, including a Vice President who serves on the Johnston City Council. The simple point: everyone can have a role in creating healthier communities, whether coaching youth soccer or leading a senior walking group, to helping local government re-write the zoning ordinance to require more walkable, mixed-use development. And everyone should! That type of policy change can support the mixed-use redevelopment (retail below, housing above) and bike share pictured here in downtown Des Moines.


2.    The private sector embraces the importance of walkable, livable communities. On day two I spoke at the Iowa Healthiest State conference [LINK], only the second convening of a statewide consortium working to improve health and, let’s be honest, lower healthcare costs across Iowa. I commend the fact that private businesses such as Hyvee (a major grocery store chain and sponsor), health insurers such as Wellmark and their peers, state and local health departments, and advocates are coming together to encourage healthier lifestyles, and it’s totally appropriate to recognize the economic motivations to do so. But I challenged the group to move upstream; we won’t solve this problem simply by encouraging people not to smoke, to eat well, and exercise daily. We’re going to have to build communities where healthier lifestyles are the norm by design. So for example, rather than simply measuring and reporting the Body Mass Index (BMI, a combination of height and weight) of America’s students, let’s start measuring how many can safely walk and bike to school on a regular basis. And let’s measure how many actually do so, and reward schools that work to improve their numbers. After all, we know more physically active students perform better academically and have fewer behavioral issues; getting them walking and biking is a triple win.

3.    Grow the Movement with the Surgeon General’s Call to Action. Wellmark and its peers are not alone in stepping up to the plate. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota has been instrumental in that state’s healthy community design and Safe Routes to School movement for years, as well as sponsoring the Twin Cities bike share program. Kaiser Permanente has been the driving force behind the national EveryBody Walk [] collaborative, a broad interdisciplinary collective of public and private agencies, businesses, non-profits, and advocacy groups working to encourage walking and build more walkable communities. One focus is on helping to promote the highly anticipated Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkability which is expected to come out sometime this summer, and to help local and regional efforts to implement the recommendations of the call. One specific activity is the creation of practice briefs for those working at the local level; I’ve created a Get Started Guide [] and accompanying documents. I’ll be introducing a practice brief on higher-level policy and market-based tools, Making Walking Routine, during a webinar with America Walks on July 15 []. These guides and others at the site are designed to help you approach local policy-makers and businesses with concrete ideas and actions following the buzz of the Surgeon General’s Call.

Thanks for a great visit to the heartland, but more important thanks to all of the partners who are working to institutionalize healthy designs and policies so that everyone can walk as a part of daily life. I hope more businesses across the country can embrace the upside of healthy community design and work to make a difference like our friends in Des Moines.