On a brisk but sunny afternoon, a walking expert and representatives from Brainerd, Baxter and surrounding environs took to Brainerd city streets Wednesday.
They group of about 15 received a few odd looks from drivers as they traveled from the Brainerd Public Library, to downtown Brainerd, to Gregory Park, to the Walgreen's corner and looping back over the Laurel Street bridge past the Brainerd Fire Station and post office before returning to the library.
Along the way, Mark Fenton, an advocate for designing communities that promote pedestrian access through biking and walking, found hopeful signs here. Fenton says the goal is to create healthier Americans. Decades of promoting 30 minutes of activity a day and getting people to the gym isn't working, he said.
Emily Roragen (left), Brainerd Main Street program coordinator, Anne Nelson Fisher, Brainerd City Council member and Mark Fenton, host of "America's Walking" on PBS, were part of a group taking a walking tour of Brainerd Wednesday. The tour was hosted by the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation the day before its Minnesota Oomph! conference in St. Cloud, where Fenton was a guest speaker. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
On the plus side, Fenton said studies show if people break up that recommended 30 minutes into smaller time chunks, the health benefits remain. Making physical activity part of everyday life may be key to turning around the health crisis of overweight adults and children that threatens to reduce life spans.
"We need to help people build physical activity back into their daily lives," Fenton said. Keys to doing that include having destinations within walking or biking distance, building sidewalks, trails and crossings and creating an inviting, safe setting for bikes and pedestrians.
"It's been a very encouraging visit from my perspective," Fenton said of his trip to Brainerd. "You guys are at a turning point and I think the next 10 years is going to tell a lot about where this community is going for the next 40 years."
He said the downtown Brainerd core of activity, including the high school, library and city and county government centers is a bonus many communities wish they had.
Fenton began his visit with a presentation with photos from around the nation where planning encouraged pedestrian activity. He suggested a number of options to calm traffic, such as mini-circles of vegetation to promote traffic flow instead of four-way stops. Painted bike lanes next to sidewalks abutting vehicle traffic provide additional buffer for pedestrians.
Active Living by Design at www.activelivingbydesign.org
AmericaWalks at www.americawalks.org
League of American Bicyclists at www.bikeleague.org
National Center for Bicycling and Walking at www.bikewalk.org
Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at www.walkinginfo.org
National Safe Routes to School at www.saferoutesinfo.org
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy at www.railtrails.org
Walkable Communities at www.walkable.org
Outside Walgreen's in Brainerd, Fenton said simply flipping the grassy area with the sidewalk that runs right next to the traffic lane would dramatically change the landscape and make the sidewalk more user friendly to walkers.
Part of the challenge to change comes from city zoning rules and regulations and what expectations people have for development.
Fenton serves on an elected planning commission near his home. He said developers that balked at ideas the first time they were broached eventually worked them into their plans. Fenton said change can happen in slow, small steps. "It's not all a baseball bat upside the head."
After the walking tour, Fenton said planning officials need "lots of support from the community." And, he said, elected officials need to have the courage to lead. "So the challenge is to the leaders of the community to have a vision," he said.
Fenton, who lives outside the Boston area, toured Brainerd through an event hosted by the Initiative Foundation a day before the foundation's Minnesota Oomph! community and health conference in St. Cloud, where Fenton was a guest speaker. Fenton hosts "America's Walking," a fitness, travel and lifestyle series on PBS. He is author of "The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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