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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 3 -- FALL 2002
 

Foundation Connects With New Urbanists

Improving the health and health care of all Americans is the mission of the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Today, the foundation has assets of $8 billion, is one of the largest private philanthropies in the country, and is the only large philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving health and health care.

In the last 30 years, RWJF provided over $4 billion to organizations and institutions across the country working on finding solutions to U.S. health and health care problems.

What does that have to do with new urbanism, with its focus on community building, and its physical approach to social and economic problems? Plenty, says M. Katherine "Kate" Kraft, Ph.D., RWJF senior program officer, speaking in June to the Congress for the New Urbanism at its annual convention in Miami.

"In the year 2000, obesity (the condition of being grossly overweight) resulted in 300,000 deaths. . Obesity-related problems cost Americans $117 billion. . Fourteen percent of teenagers and 13 percent of children are overweight. . People are driving more and fully 80 percent of auto trips are a distance of one mile or less."

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association underscores Kraft's remarks and highlights the critical connection between sedentary behavior and obesity, finding that, in general, Americans are eating more food, more frequently. At the same time, opportunities to burn calories in daily life are diminishing. Children watch more television daily, physical education has been reduced in schools, many neighborhoods lack safe sidewalks, the workplace is more automated, household chores are assisted by labor-saving machinery and - as Kraft said - walking and bicycling has been replaced by automobile travel for all but the shortest distances.

In the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) charter, that group's mission and policy statement, it appears there are some important connections to be made between community-building new urbanists and a philanthropic foundation with a mission to improve public health.

According to the charter, "Many activities of daily living should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, especially the elderly and the young. . Interconnected networks of streets should be designed to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy. . Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle. . Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking."

Kraft says the two organizations can do a lot to help each other meet objectives.

"Ultimately, it's all about how society uses its resources," Kraft said in a recent interview. "It gets down to health care costs.

"[We know] that the design features of the places people live impact their ability to be physically active and can impact their health. We have learned that just encouraging people to exercise doesn't work. "There is also evidence that suburban sprawl [is related to increased] obesity. We can make the argument, but not with the kind of conviction we would like."

The foundation is taking action to develop the tools to shed more light on the problem, Kraft said. Part of that action is in the form of a fairly new RWJF initiative, the Active Living By Design program, a program to which the foundation has committed tens of millions of dollars in the next several years. Underlying the program is the understanding that physical activity is no longer a part of most people's daily lives. The program seeks to infuse activity-promoting goals into ongoing community planning goals and to develop and test active living programs in 25 communities with a special emphasis on reaching low-income Americans.

The Active Living Policy and Environmental Studies (ALPES) program is the research arm of RWJF's overall initiative to promote active living. The program, led by two researchers at San Diego State University, is tasked with building a research field that identifies environmental factors and policies with the potential to influence physical activity and sedentary behavior.

If they can't say sprawl and obesity go hand in hand today, they will have the means to make that argument to policy-makers in the very near future. Kraft is excited by the notion of joining with forces with new urbanists and smart growth advocates, among others, to reach important health, economic, environmental and other objectives.

"Everything impacts everything else," explained Kraft. "Many organizations are out there working at the same time, advocating complementary issues. Bringing that all together gives me tremendous confidence and faith.

"I feel very optimistic. We are making progress."

"The key is not to focus on how far we have to go, but on how very far we have come."

For more information on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, visit: www.rwjf.org.