Montgomery Improves the Health of Citizens and Recruits Local Businesses

Montgomery, AL | January 2013 | By National Recreation and Park Association

Montgomery Improves the Health of Citizens and Recruits Local Businesses 410

After a 2010 Gallop Poll declared Montgomery, Alabama, the most obese city in the country, the community took a long look in the mirror and decided to change what it saw. An epidemic of this proportion required a multi-pronged and long term approach to changing the infrastructure of Montgomery.

Poor health has an economic cost, and the mayor was worried that businesses would be deterred from locating in the area for fear of the high health care costs associated with obesity. He was therefore committed to changing the culture and creating healthier expectations. The mayor chose the Director of Montgomery’s Department of Public Relations and External Affairs to be the Health and Wellness Czar. Choosing someone whose role in the community includes attracting businesses and promoting investments in Montgomery to lead a public health initiative made clear that these two causes are closely linked. The Regional Planning Commission committed additional staff time to study what could be done to lower the obesity rate. 

A related group that included the business leaders, parks and recreation representatives, the YMCA, the school district, and the public health department made a plan to increase physical activity in after-school programs and to make local roadways more bike-friendly. The region now sports sixty-two “Share the Road” signs to raise driver awareness of walkers and bikers along roadways. The Montgomery Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan update includes thirty-two draft bicycle routes and thirty-four draft connector routes, and the county passed an ordinance requiring a minimum clearance of three feet when overtaking a cyclist. This was strongly supported by the community, which had long called for making the area safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

The mayor and the planning director have a long-term goal to use physical activity and nutrition-related infrastructure changes to make the area one of the most progressive cities and counties in Alabama. “We are working to rebrand Montgomery and the region as a healthy, progressive place to live that is mindful of good nutrition and physical activity being part of everyday life and institutions such as schools, hospitals, worksites – that is our 5-year goal to rebrand in that way” says City of Montgomery’s Health and Wellness Czar. They are well on their way: The 2012 Gallup Poll dropped Montgomery from 1st to the 15th most obese city, and the city’s obesity rate has declined from 34% to 30.9%. 

Regional business and public partners have come on board because these efforts to create a healthier culture feed into their own marketing goals. Water trails, bicycle routes, and walking trails create opportunities for tourism and put money into the local economy. The Health and Wellness Czar believes this is the beginning of a new chapter for Montgomery, announcing “We successfully won the right to host a cycling competition with participants from eight states, which will bring 300-500 people here as tourists. The reason we were chosen over Atlanta and Nashville was our cycling-friendly traits. Now in addition to encouraging people to be helpful, we are realizing a financial dividend as well.”