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September 21, 2023

Reversing the Trend (Healthier Nashville)

Reversing the Trend (Healthier Nashville)
by Lynne Jeter, Healthier Nashville | Mar 21, 2012

Nashville Civic Design Center adopts ambitious plan to foster healthier, happier community

In 2005, Nashville was recognized among the nation’s 25 fittest cities. By 2011, the state capital had fallen to the dark side: Men’s Health listed it No. 8 among the fattest cities in the United States.

Three years ago, when city planners were working on ways to boost its user-friendly matrix of bike lanes, sidewalks and green space, Nashville was still a sparkling “fit city.”

What happened?

“These … studies are pretty useless,” said a longtime Nashvillian. “Many of them … are arbitrary. I’d think that Nashville would be very middle of the pack if there was a way to truly measure and evaluate the fittest and fattest.”

A lifelong Davidson County resident concurred: “I’d take (these rankings) with a grain of salt. They generally use a real shorthand way of coming up with these ratings. It would take a major long-term research project to actually come up with a solid answer for most of these things. (However), southern cities are often ranked among the fattest cities. We tend to like fried foods.”

To move the city in the right direction, the Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC) is undertaking an ambitious new project, Shaping Healthy Cities: Nashville, a  two-year project culminating in a book based on extensive research that enhances awareness of the impacts of the built environment on health, and facilitates the inclusion of health impacts on future design decision in Nashville-Davidson County.

The book is on track to be published by Vanderbilt University Press early next year, with an exhibition at the Nashville Public Library for the first six months of 2013.

“Our goals are to encourage healthpromoting design throughout Davidson County, both in how buildings are designed and operated, and all the spaces between the buildings we live, work and play in, including infrastructure, land use decisions and neighborhood level development,” said NCDC project manager Patricia Conway.

Seed money of $150,000 for the $300,000 project was funneled through the Metro Nashville Public Health Department from a $7.5 million Federal Government Recovery Act Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) Grant. The Memorial Foundation kicked in $10,000; the NCDC is seeking remaining funding.

“Our review of national and international research studies identified six groups of built environment factors shown to impact health,” said Conway.

They include:

  • Transportation options
  • Pedestrian safety and walkability
  • Food resources, such as availability, quality and cost
  • Housing quality and location
  • Open, green and public space access and utility
  • Overall neighborhood design and development, such as mixed-use development, 20-minute neighborhoods, and walkable destinations

“Our action plan is thinking about how the present resources are distributed around the county, and the conditions of these resources,” said Conway, noting that resources include parks, greenways, recreation centers, tree canopy, sidewalks, crosswalks, main roads, interstates, public transit, bike paths, affordable quality housing, employment, essential commerce, food outlets, community gardens, and health outlets.

The NCDC team is looking to existing policy, plans and decision making structures – governmental and private – to offer a plan of action to move Davidson County to a place where people have:

  • Multiple safe, convenient, comfortable and affordable transportation options;
  • Convenient access to affordable nutritious food;
  • Good quality, affordable housing that buffers residents from built and natural environmental harm;
  • Usable, attractive, accessible, safe open/ public space enabling people of all ages to be active and find respite from stress;
  • Safe, walkable streets and roads throughout neighborhoods that connect people to essential resources, pleasurable destinations, and destinations such as work and school; and
  • The inclusion of a lens of health in community planning so that all neighborhoods in the county can promote the health of residents.

“We see the benefits and potential of thoughtfully shaping our built environments to promote better health,” said Conway. “We don’t view design as the only route to good health, but as one of several key areas of intervention for improved public health.”

Conway and NCDC team members have drawn inspiration from innovative designs in fitness-friendly cities across the country.

“We’re just beginning the action plan process after months of research and data collation to understand the current state of Davidson County built environments,” she said. “We’re in the process of mapping how built environment decisions are made in the county, and who has jurisdiction over what. We’re also examining existing policy, and policy objectives for the county to determine what’s possible and attractive to decision-makers in the short, medium and long term. You’ll have to wait for the book for this answer!”

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