While serving as Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kate Kraft contributed to setting up the successful New Jersey FIT: Future In Transportation program at the New Jersey Department of Transportation. She currently works as a Community Health and Wellness Consultant and serves on the board of the Rails-toTrails-Conservancy. Kate is an expert on community health, Active Living, and behavior change. She spoke with us at PPS about her views on biking and walking and where she feels the future of community health and transportation are headed.
Kate has been actively working to bridge the gap between transportation policy and community health since before a common-sense link existed between the two. She remembers the creation of this linkage happening between the late 1990s-early 2000s when, she says, “it was time to re-engineer activity back into our lives by changing the environment in order increase physical activity for health benefits. We had engineered activity out of our lives, so routine physical activity was no longer there.”
This began with what Kate describes as the analytical process between her and her public health colleagues. “Based upon what we knew about changing behavior,” she recalls, “we needed to change the environment in order to have a sustained behavior change. We started working with urban planners and transportation engineers to really focus on ‘How do you create an infrastructure toward walking and biking not only for leisure, but for transportation?’ And with that, we found this wonderful world of pedestrian advocates and biking advocates who, for years, had been trying to get safer walking and biking facilities.”
Such an endeavor, of course, met with immediate challenges. Before the early 2000s, Kate notes, the built environment, “was pretty much out of the mainstream idea in the health field because the health field was used to a different way of thinking about how you address problems.” Now however, she points out that, “every community, and every public health department now recognizes that in order to address health and manage obesity, we have to have an environment that’s conducive to routine physical activity, such as walking and biking for transport, not just exercise classes.”
This knowledge and understanding can be attributed to what Kate acknowledges is, “one of the things we have now that we did not have a few years ago: some evidence base about particular design characteristics and built form that really support more activity levels.” Another, and perhaps more difficult challenge to work with is policy changes: “What is going to be key for the future is translating that evidence into action, and in this case the action has to do with policy changes. Policy changes are going to have to happen in an environment at a time when there are real economic challenges in this country. There is real concern about the condition of transportation funds.”
Kate emphasized that one of the most important things in creating more walkable and bikeable communities is that, “we have to be very deliberate to make sure we aren’t creating pockets of elitism. If you’re not deliberate about bringing in underserved communities, it won’t happen. Ongoing collaboration between planning and transportation must keep in mind community fairness and equity. Working in low-income urban communities, and bringing in bike/ped programs has to be a part of economic development.”
While she recognizes that this is challenging in the face of other seemingly more urgent urban issues such as job security, housing, and education, Kate points out that these social issues are inextricably linked to health and transportation. “It is really about moving from a culture where we think having a walkable and bikeable community is only for the privileged; from that being a ‘nice thing to have,’ to a necessary thing to have.” This, while perhaps most important, is what may be most challenging.
Examples of Healthy Places, where the relationship between infrastructure and health in the urban context are evolving, are sprouting up around the country. One city that is proving to be an excellent example of what Kate advocates for is Seattle. Active Seattle, an Active Living by Design program, works to “increase physical activity and healthy eating through community design” in five communities within the city. It has conducted neighborhood walking audits, identified problem sidewalk areas which were repaired and enhanced by the Seattle Department of Transportation, and provided active living education to physicians in low-income health clinics through a series of orientations for medical providers to name a few of the program’s endeavors.
Active Seattle’s Placmaking success is due in large part to the engagement of a mix of stakeholders, including community members, decision makers, and government agencies. This inclusive approach, vital to creating place in community, has shifted the way government funding is processed. The program successfully advocated for $875,000 in the mayor’s 2006 budget for sidewalk construction and $1.8 million for supplemental crosswalk and sidewalk improvements. The actions taken by Active Seattle align nicely with what Kate sees as, “an opportunity rather than a challenge: the ongoing collaboration of different disciplines.”
When asked why it’s important for health practitioners to add their voices to the growing discussion about how to create healthier communities, Kate notes that, “public health operates from a science base, which needs to be used in decision-making; doctors need to be vocal about activities’ impact on the public’s health.” She also underscores the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration again by pointing out that, “Conferences like Pro Walk/Pro Bike bring together advocates and practitioners so that they can share good ideas, expand their thinking, and cultivate the networks they need to be good advocates for bringing health into that mix.”
Kate’s optimism is a testament to the work she says has, “come a really long way in a short amount of time.” Coming from someone inside the health profession, this should be encouraging to everyone working to advocate for Healthy Places!