#WalkBikeForward: Join us on our journey honoring key moments and people that have shaped our field as we celebrate 20 years of creating active, healthy communities.
Chuck Flink is one of America’s leading greenway designers. He founded and has run North Carolina-based Greenways Inc. since 1986, and is a Senior Advisor to Alta.
Milestones on the Path to Healthier Living
Progress did not happen overnight. I have been personally and professionally involved for 34 years, and know that a lot of hard work has been put into the cause of active living by a whole bunch of people from across America and throughout the world. Everyone likes to single out one or two people who made this happen. I would say that is impossible with the active living movement. Here are some key moments that come to mind:
Surgeon General Richard Carmona declared obesity an epidemic in 2004. Without this event, there would be no sense of urgency to alter the lifestyle of Americans. Obesity and its impact on both our lives and mortality became a rallying cry for change.
Last Child in the Woods
Richard Louv’s seminal 2005 book put a laser focus on the lack of access to the outdoors for kids in America. This was a riveting moment when we realized society was promoting an unhealthy lifestyle for children.
ISTEA, TEA-21, SAFETEA-LU etc.
The nation’s surface transportation programs were altered dramatically by federal legislation to include provisions for bicycling and walking as important elements of America’s transportation network. Prior to ISTEA’s passage in 1991, America spent very little on bicycling and walking projects. Since the passage of ISTEA and its subsequent reauthorizations, America has spent billions on walk/bike projects. This has created better biking and walking close to home, work and school that are being used by tens of millions of Americans every day. Access to quality facilities has done as much as programming to promote active lifestyles.
Support from the Medical Profession and Industry
Doctors, hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies were slow to support bicycling and walking as a legitimate solution for health issues. I remember the first time I made a presentation to a community health foundation, trying to promote the cause of Active Living around 2002. I was accused by the doctors in the room of being a snake oil salesman. The thought of active living as contributing to a healthy lifestyle was not a message that this group wanted to embrace. But now organizations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and many others are funders and backers of active living programs and projects.
Fitbit and the Apple Watch
Technology is already playing an important role in active living. With the Fitbit and Apple Watch, individuals now get instant personal health information. They are able to better manage their health with Apps that are included with these devices, which remind them to be more active. I own the Apple Watch and I am amazed at how much it has done to remind me of how sedentary I am every day. This is not something I would have ever thought of prior to owning the watch. This technology helps to keep me more active. It is said that sitting and a sedentary lifestyle is the new smoking. Technology can help to alter millions of lives in a positive manner.
Emerging Trends for the Next 20 Years
In the last 20 years the importance of active living has been well documented. Here are some of the factors that will continue to spread active living over the next 20:
Healthier Community Design
The private sector is embracing active living because it helps sell their products. I’ve had conversations with land developers all across America who want to make it the “centerpiece” of outdoor living spaces in their developments. This occurs in dense urban areas and in greenfield development. Walking and bicycling are important attributes of a modern community and developers now compete to see who can design and develop the most green, sustainable, active community in America. This is not a trend, it is the new reality.
Technology Revolutionizes Transportation
Clothing will be embedded with technology to monitor our health and wellness and provide constant feedback about living a heathier lifestyle. But even bigger, technology will be the most important factor advancing transportation systems worldwide. This begins with what is being called “the driverless car.” The technology developed by Google, Apple and Tesla, to name a few, will make all forms of autonomous travel safer for all users of the streets. Currently, the major auto manufacturers are buying up new technology companies as soon as these companies bring new technology to market. As cars become more intelligent, fewer human-caused accidents will occur. While there is much debate about driverless cars now, this technology is already well on its way to becoming the new normal. Intelligent cars will make it safer for bicycling and walking because car systems are already being designed to recognize and respond to surrounding conditions.
Technology will also be applied to the manufacture of bicycles. Bicycles will be lighter, more reliable and easier to use. Electric bicycles will be the most important phenomenon of the next 20 years and will gain market share. Cities that are laying down a comprehensive grid of bicycle facilities today will be the ones that will see the greatest change in mode share (away from the car) in the future. New urban communities are already being organized around the use of the bicycle as a primary form of local transportation. This will gain favor during the next 20 years.
Car ownership will continue to decline and ride sharing will increase dramatically. The travel experience will become more of a commodity. There will be no reason to own a car in the future since anyone will be able to hire a car, or other vehicle, for either a ride or to perform other needed tasks. For example, if you need a pick-up truck to move a large item, you can just order one and book it for the time in which you will use it.
The change in car ownership will dramatically alter community planning and design. One of the largest land use planning considerations today is automobile parking. Ride sharing means that parking lots will become a thing of the past. Linked with apps on personal devices, such as smart phones and tablets, people will simply order up ride sharing services. This also means that the household driveway and garage are a relic of the past.
Increasing Private Investment in Active Living
There is a lot of money, investment dollars, looking for a safer and better return on investment than the traditional Wall Street route. I have been working with privately funded projects for the past 15 years. I believe this trend is growing and will help shape community design and development over the next 20 years.
Two specific examples come to mind. The Walton Family Foundation in Northwest Arkansas supported the development of a 36-mile regional greenway connecting the six communities of Northwest Arkansas. There were two important goals and measurements of return on investment that were important to the Foundation: 1) fostering a healthier population that participates in active living and 2) making Northwest Arkansas more attractive for business investment as a result of building the regional greenway. The project was completed in 2015 and the two primary benefits are already being realized.
In Memphis, Tennessee, the Hyde Family Foundation and other private investments are contributing $25 million to support the development of a 23-mile urban greenway along the Wolf River. Spearheaded by the Wolf River Conservancy, an accredited land trust, the Greenway will provide Memphians with close-to-home access to a regional outdoor amenity. The Greenway connects neighborhoods with the most important natural asset in the city. The private sector investment does not stop with construction of the Greenway. They are also focused on business creation, employment, vocational education and support of outdoor related enterprises.
Active Communities Come of Age
By 2036, many communities across the country will be designed to promote active living. There will be greater access to many forms of transportation so the choice between different modes will be seamless. It will be simple to bike, walk and ride in a motor vehicle all on the same trip. I believe that active living will become so ingrained in successful communities that those which are aren’t designed to support this way of life will soon fail.
Alta’s strength is in its core values and mission. People working at Alta make a lifestyle and career choice by choosing to work at the company. Working at Alta is not just a job — it combines passion and a desire to make a difference, while at the same time earning a paycheck.