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The Key To Healthier Living In North Texas Might Be Better Urban Planning

Klyde Warren Park's accessibility via multiple modes of transporation and heavy programming make the urban park an active space.

In Texas, the number of adults with diabetes is expected to quadruple over the next 30 years. Currently, about one in 12 adult Texans – about 2 million people – have been diagnosed with diabetes, with more than 700,000 in North Texas alone.

In a2010 reported titled “Responding to the Epidemic: Strategies for Improving Diabetes Care In Texas,” health experts attribute the grim numbers and projections to an obesity epidemic in the state. 

When it comes to combating health problems like obesity or diabetes, most people think it’s the responsibility of doctors and nutritionists. But urban planners, architects and engineers say they play a role as well. The way a city or a building is planned can encourage people to walk more and be healthier in their everyday lives.

As part of KERA’s Breakthroughs series, looking at the leading edge of health, science and technology, Stephanie Kuo talked about the concept of “active design” with Emily Henry, a landscape architect at TBG Partners in Dallas.

Interview Highlights: Emily Henry

…On the elements of active design:

“Especially in cities, you want to create spaces that encourage people to walk outside, and a lot of that comes down to basic urban design principles. You want to create streetscapes that are comfortable for people to walk on, that are wide, that have some sort of a barrier between the pedestrian space and the vehicular space, and a rhythm of street trees that provide that barrier and also provide shade. You also want to activate the streetscapes. On the building side, you want stores and restaurants that activate the streets and create spaces where people can congregate outside and spend time with other people.”

…On how a car-dependent city like Dallas has integrated active design successfully:

“Places like Klyde Warren Park is a great example. They’ve got heavy programming, so it really encourages people to be outside. People are craving those spaces and want to go to places, where there are other people doing other things – whether it’s yoga or simply just having food trucks so you can eat with other people. I think most people don’t even realize that’s what they crave, but they do.

Credit Stephanie Kuo / KERA News
Emily Henry, landscape architect at TBG Partners in Dallas.

...On how active design makes movement more natural:

“You don’t realize that you may be walking a mile or two miles. When your senses are all activated, when you’re smelling the coffee as you walk down the street, you’re hearing music from a cafe, it feels better and it encourages people to walk outdoors and get active.

"If you need to go down the street and pick up something at a Walgreens or a CVS, the option is either walk two blocks where there’s absolutely nothing on the street or you can hop in your car, then here, especially in Dallas, that’s the [option] people are going to go for.”

…On why active design is important for public health:

“I think we’re all very busy; we all have busy lives, and if you don’t provide opportunities for people, in their life, to move naturally by foot, then we’re just going to continue to be in our cars, go through drive-thrus, eat fast food and become more and more unhealthy. It’s really important for the resiliency of our city to create options that activate people and keep people moving in order for us to stay healthy, to stay out of the hospital, and keep hospital costs down. All these things are connected. And obviously, if people are healthier, people are happier.”

…On why North Texas has been slow to adopt active design:

“I think it’s starting to catch on. We’re already kind of behind, so let’s fix the bad decisions we’ve maybe made in the past and learn from those mistakes, look beyond our individual property lines and look at comprehensive solutions to these problems.

"Everybody wants to be healthy. There’s this kind of overwhelming feeling that you have to spend an hour a day in a gym working out, when actually, if you just build your cities in a way that promoted walkability, you simply need to just wake up and go get your cup of coffee and walk to work, and you’re already so much healthier than if you’re in a city where you hop in your car. It’s paramount for us to design our cities so it’s easier to make the healthy decision.”