Americans are driving less.

The reasons for this are numerous and varied, but per capita miles driven have decreased every year since 2005. This drop in miles driven has been mirrored by an interest in improved facilities for active transportation — bicycling, walking and more — in communities across the county, including Howard County.

At the same time, however, rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases related to unhealthy lifestyles have continued to increase.

“In Howard County, more than half of all adults and a quarter of all children are overweight or obese,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation, Howard County’s public health philanthropy. “Our community has a long history of innovative programs to support the health of residents, and our positive lifestyles campaign builds on this history to make it easier for all residents to make healthy choices.”

Using evidence and best practices from around the country to develop its positive lifestyles initiative, the foundation has been working for the last two years to make healthy, nutritious food and drink options more widely available and accessible throughout the community.

The other key component of a healthy lifestyle is regular physical activity, and the foundation is now engaged with community partners in an effort to help residents be more active, notably by bringing more “complete streets” to Howard County.

Complete Streets

A nationwide movement launched by the National Complete Streets Coalition in 2004, complete streets “integrates people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of transportation networks,” according to the coalition’s web page. The concept has grown into a broader and more comprehensive set of changes aimed at increasing transportation options, strengthening economies, re-thinking the way developments are designed and function and improving public health.

The goal is to make it safe and comfortable for everyone, regardless of age or ability, to move around their communities — by foot or bike, as well as by public transportation or automobile.

“We’re taking a similar approach to promoting physical activity [as] we’ve used to encourage better nutrition,” said Highsmith Vernick. “We want walking, cycling and other active and healthy modes of transportation to be easy, safe and accessible for everyone, and from research and best practices around the country we know that complete streets is an effective approach to accomplish that goal.”

There is emerging evidence indicating that communities that make it easy to engage in routine physical activity have better health outcomes overall, and in particular have lower rates of obesity and chronic diseases related to unhealthy lifestyles.

“As part of this effort, we’re making a distinction between routine physical activity and exercise,” noted Highsmith Vernick. “Rather than relegate physical activity to ‘workouts,’ we believe individuals can incorporate the recommended 30 minutes of routine physical activity into their lives if our built environment encouraged walking, cycling and other people-powered forms of transportation.”

‘Welcoming and Connected’

With the help of experts and community partners, Horizon is launching an effort this year called “Open Streets – Howard County” with the goal of promoting interest in the creation and expansion of a connected network of safe pedestrian and cycling facilities throughout Howard County. There is momentum in the community for this work, as new bicycle and pedestrian master planning efforts led by Howard County government and Columbia Association are nearing completion, and county government recently hired its first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

The foundation hopes this work will build on the progress that has been made locally and will galvanize growing interest in creating a “healthier” built environment for Howard County.

“Streets define our communities, they shape our neighborhoods and support our businesses. They connect us to each other, to schools, employment, shopping, entertainment and other destinations,” said Highsmith Vernick. “What we are working towards is to build and operate streets in Howard County that reflect the community we want — accessible, sustainable, healthy, welcoming and connected.”

Horizon’s plans include developing and promoting a complete streets policy for Howard County government, as well targeted infrastructure investments that could help better link existing pedestrian and cycling facilities with destinations. It is also working to build awareness and to develop programs and demonstration projects that encourage residents to be more active as part of their regular routine.

“Our vision is to create a community-wide, fully connected network of facilities throughout the county that supports and encourages us all to make healthier choices. But we know that takes time,” Highsmith Vernick said. “By developing a strong policy framework to support this work and future investments, we will begin to build a physical environment that promotes the health of everyone.”

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Ian Kennedy is director of communications for The Horizon Foundation, in Columbia. He can be reached at 443-472-3559 or [email protected].