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Mark Fenton

Mark Fenton speaks with local officials Thursday about community design and walkability at RiverStone Health.

A public health, planning and transportation consultant told local officials and transportation advocates on Thursday that Billings is ready to make significant increases to its walkable and bikeable spaces, but that it's going to take some work.

"We can't just tell people to walk more," said Mark Fenton, a national consultant and expert on public health planning. "We have to build walkable communities."

The presentation and ensuing discussion, held at RiverStone Health, drew about 50 city and county planning staff, public health officials and transportation and health advocates, as well as a pair of Billings City Council members in Mike Yakawich and Dick Clark.

Fenton framed much of the talk in the context of modern youth, whom he said are predicted to likely be the first generation of Americans to live statistically shorter lives than their parents due to sedentary lifestyles. One-third of children born today, he said, will likely develop diabetes in their lifetime.

"What precisely are you going to do to fix that?" he said. "That's the question. That's really the only question, if you ask me, because everything falls down from that."

City growth

Early on in the conversation, Fenton asked everybody in the room to close their eyes and think back to a fond childhood memory of physical activity. Responses included games of kickball, tag, kick the can and capture the flag.

He described youth who grew up as what he called "free-range children," who roamed their neighborhoods freely and safely while having plenty of unstructured and unscheduled activity outside, as an important part of the solution while pointing to implementing a community-wide approach to healthy planning that includes robust bicycling and pedestrian facilities as a major step in making that happen.

The talk comes at a key time in the Billings area, as the City/County Planning Department is in the midst of updating the growth plan and expects to present a draft to the City Council in late June.

"It's a great window of opportunity, and it starts with the growth policy," said Planning Director Candi Millar.

In addition, the council has been debating possible changes to work on the city's complete streets policy — which calls for bike lanes, sidewalks and bus lane accommodations — that some council members called restrictive and expensive. Advocates argued that it increases safety for bicyclists and pedestrians and encourages a healthier community while improving quality of life.

Changing habits

Fenton said that from 1969 to 2001, the percentage of children who get a car ride to school increased from 15 to 45, while the inverse was true of those who biked or walked, and that childhood obesity rates have tripled in that same time.

The best investment in them today, he said, is better diet and exercise, and communities like Billings can address the activity side of it through careful and considerate planning that doesn't make bicycling and walking secondary concerns.

He went on to recommend a socioecological approach that didn't just promote healthy activities, but also addressed it at the individual, group, institutional, infrastructure and policy levels.

"You can't just scold people into doing something," Fenton said. "It's not enough. If the foundation isn't there, it doesn't happen."

He said the four key design elements to ensuring that the community encourages walking and biking are a varied mix of:

  • Destinations for users.
  • A strong biking, walking and transit network.
  • Proper site design.
  • Good safety and access points.

Citing national statistics, Fenton said that it can also increase housing values and aid in the recruitment and retention of new residents.

Small steps

Dave Mumford, City of Billings public works director, said that he's worked on increasing biking and walking facilities for a dozen years — such as a narrower reconstruction of Zimmerman Trail south of Rimrock Road that includes multi-use trails — but that it hasn't been easy and likely won't be moving forward, either.

He advocated for taking smaller steps with the larger, long-term picture in mind.

"It was a huge battle in this community every step of the way," he said. " ... But we are taking a lot of steps in the planning community."

Fenton said that Billings has made great improvements with its biking and walking infrastructure, but that more can be done and that the city is "at the cusp of some really big decisions."

He often praised design elements at the Josephine Crossing subdivision as an example of smart planning that could be used elsewhere.

After the meeting, officials and other interested attendees sat with Fenton to develop more of an action plan and discuss how to organize, such as a comprehensive steering committee with representation from a wide range of interests, groups and entities in Billings.

Kristi Drake, executive director of the nonprofit urban trail advocacy group Billings Trailnet, said that it's important for people who were at the meeting to work together to put new policies into place while also getting a sense of what the community wants.

"We really need to recognize what we have done as a community and we need to applaud that," she said.

The conference was hosted by Healthy By Design, a local coalition designed to promote and build a healthier community, and sponsored by RiverStone Health, the Billings Family YMCA, Billings Trailnet and the Clocktower Inn.

The City/County Planning Department also plans to hold a public meeting on May 25 at the Billings Public Library to gather community input on the updated growth plan.

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