Local Officials' Decisions Can Have Large Impact on Health of Their Communities

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • We often think of diet and exercise as an individual choice. That’s true, but sometimes things that local, state and national policymakers do can make a big difference. Sometimes these leaders take an active role by changing laws or developing ordinances. Other times their efforts are symbolic in nature. At times, they get out in front in promoting an effort. And then there are the times when they have to play catch up.

    A case in point is Houston, Texas. This city, which is the fourth largest in the United States, is doing some pretty amazing things to promote a healthy lifestyle. However, policymakers are struggling with other issues that could make a big difference to the health of the city’s citizens. I offer these examples up as a way to help readers think about what their local policymakers are doing – and still need to do – to help make exercise and a healthy diet accessible to all.

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    Positive – Sunday Streets

    Houston has started a Sunday Streets HTX pilot program in which city officials are closing down major streets for four hours on a Sunday each month in order to encourage citizens to explore that neighborhood on foot or bike. This concept began initially in Bogota, Columbia more than three decades ago. Houston’s Director of Sustainability Laura Spanijian told the Houston Chronicle, “We want people to get out and exercise and bike and walk and skate and really enjoy the open space.” The Houston version most recently featured a variety of healthy options, including Zumba classes and a farmer’s market.

    Challenge – Cycling

    While Houston officials are starting to encourage these opportunities to traverse streets without cars, there still are some issues. For instance, the headline of a Houston Chronicle editorial in early March stated, “With disturbing regularity, cyclists are being killed.” The editorial writers pointed out that 23 bicycle riders died on the streets of Houston during the past five years.

    Many Houston roads were built for vehicles, not bikes. Yet some cyclists have not shied away from trying to take back their part of the roadways. One of these efforts is the Critical Mass bike ride. This regular event (which is held in 300 cities around the world) happens on the last Friday night of each month. In Houston this is a loosely organized 20-mile ride in which many riders disobey traffic laws or wear helmets. They also leave gridlock in their path. For instance, one Houston Chronicle reporter said that he sat at an intersection for 20 minutes while cyclists pedaled through the crossing.

    Houston officials continue to try to strike a balance between letting these cyclists have their evening on the road, maintaining safety and appeasing car drivers. They also are trying to identify ways to help cyclists regularly travel safely in a transportation system that relies heavily on automobiles.

    Positive – Veg Out!

    To celebrate National Nutrition Month, Houston’s Recipe for Success Foundation challenged Houston citizens to eat 30 different vegetables in 30 days. “Starting with our Mayor, so many partners are lending a hand!” says Gracie Cavnar, founder and CEO of Recipe for Success Foundation. This foundation created a website to track the progress and also offered recipes (including ones for fennel, hearts of palm, kohlrabi and nopales), tips and resources. People who completed the challenge were entered to win prizes, including grocery shopping trips, cooking classes and restaurant meals. More than 1500 people participated on the website’s tracking, and I’m sure many more made an effort to eat more veggies during that month.

  • Challenge – Stray dogs

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    Parts of Houston are having an issue with stray dogs. In fact, a survey found that 69 percent of residents in one East Houston area, 62 percent residents of another area and 61 percent of residents in part of downtown reported that stray dogs are an issue in those neighborhoods. Many of these residents said they are often staying inside for fear of being attacked. To deal with this issue, Houston’s Bureau of Animal Control is trying to develop a program to be able to deal with these animals. In addition, officials are considering making criminal charges against irresponsible pet owners. They also are encouraging people to follow leash laws and get their dogs spayed or neutered.

    These examples paint a picture of what local policymakers can do – and what they need to do. I’m sure your community has different challenges, but I think that the takeaway from Houston is that you should encourage your elected officials and city and county staff to think about what they can do to encourage an environment where you and your loved ones can live a healthy life.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. (2014).  Veg Out! Challenge Kickoff.

    Houston Chronicle. (2014). Just a doggone walk.

    Houston Chronicle. (2014, March 9). With disturbing regularity, cyclists are being killed.

    Hoffman, K. (2013). Critical Mass bike ride is chaos in motion. Houston Chronicle.

    Recipe for Success. (2014). VegOut website.

Published On: April 09, 2014