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US Urban Planners Try to Maximize Walking in the City

Obesity will soon overtake tobacco as the major cause of death in the United States, according to a new study. In response, federal health officials are asking Americans to eat less and exercise more. Getting physically fit may soon be a bit easier in Boston. Urban designers working on a renovated downtown are factoring in new opportunities for walking and exercise.

This winter, Boston motorists are finally getting a chance to try out a brand new underground highway. Ten lanes now snake beneath the city's downtown, replacing an elevated freeway where roads once merged and traffic often slowed to a crawl. It took more than a decade and at least $16 billion to finish what's known as The Big Dig. Moving the corridor underground has created 120 hectares of open space above ground, and hat's opened up all sorts of possibilities. Already, plans are underway to build a huge skateboard park near one of the new Charles River bridges.

And there are proposals for bikers, joggers and dog walkers. On this frigid morning, Professor Peter Furth is holding class outdoors near the Boston harbor. He asks his civil engineering students from Northeastern University to imagine moving through downtown Boston on a special urban trail.

"You'll be under the steel, following the paths along the Wharf district. Somewhere you've got to cross over and start your journey down Commercial Street," he said.

The assignment is to see if it's possible to create a multi-use path - for biking, walking, jogging - alongside a stretch of road that separates the densely populated North End from the Boston Harbor. Before they go further, everyone ducks into a nearby hotel lobby to get warm.

"You'll notice how wide Commercial Street is. Because it's right along the water, you don't have cross traffic to deal with. It's not expensive and quite safe," says Mr. Furth.

The path in question could lead to the new skateboard park to the north, making getting there part of the fun and the exercise. This is the sort of urban design that environmental planner Anne Lusk relishes: places you're so drawn to, you can't help but exert yourself to get there.

"We know that a destination can be so compelling that you unwittingly walk miles, in the shopping mall or the zoo or the art gallery, to get to your destination of the perfect black dress, or that Monet or the lion," she said. "So how do you put those compelling human need destinations in the landscape and then just facilitate the passage there?"

Ms. Lusk, a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, envisions multi-use paths that are closer to home than most recreational trails. And more practical: connecting residential streets with schools, grocery stores and offices - some of the very places people typically get to by car.

But for many, it's hard to imagine getting around any other way.

"Clearly what's happened over the last 100 years in this country is that we've designed our environment to eliminate or reduce physical activity and that reduction in physical activity is one of the factors that's driving this epidemic of obesity," explains nutritionist and epidemiologist Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. He is among those leading the charge for a public health-driven urban renewal. His views reflect the thinking of a new movement, known as 'active living.' In an unusual twist, the federal government may have been one of its earliest proponents.

Richard Killingsworth was a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when he was asked to convene a discussion on obesity in the fall of 1997. "Clearly that meeting was one of those meetings I can say that if we didn't have that, we wouldn't be where we are today," he said.

The gathering was unique because architects, urban planners, and transportation engineers were invited to join government health experts. It was one year after the first ever Surgeon General's report on the health benefits of moderate exercise. Mr. Killingsworth says the CDC feared the message wasn't getting through - and perhaps wouldn't without new models of community design that promoted physical activity.

"You have the ranking public health agency in the U.S. making a commitment where they're going to start looking at how issues relevant to city planning and transportation and land use all have an impact on how we behave and how we ultimately lead healthier lives," he went on to say. "That was a major step because CDC is driven by data."

There was almost no data to go on at the time. And there is still no real evidence that changing the bricks and mortar of a city in favor of multi-use pathways will draw the people who need to start exercising. But according to Emory University health policy expert Kenneth Thorpe, there's no point in waiting for proof with 65% of Americans overweight or obese, and at risk for a host of diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

"The same thing with hypertension, high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease," he said. "So the epidemic of obesity has major implications for health care spending and health outcomes.".

Meanwhile, back with the civil engineering students, senior Demetrius Makos says he never imagined he'd use his major to tackle public health problems. But now he's excited at the prospect. "Opening up bike paths and pedestrian paths in a city like Boston, which really isn't too walker friendly. It will better improve the health of the community and the visiting population, which is a good thing," he said.

He and his classmates at Northeastern will devote their semester to finding a safe way to burn calories along a stretch of Boston's waterfront. Their findings may be submitted to the city as a formal proposal, and may inspire similar urban trails in other downtown areas.