I read the news story about Red Deer becoming the only Canadian city to get attention for being an international leader in promoting active living with a grain of salt rubbed into old wounds.
That’s because some of the scars are still fresh, two years after Red Deer received a national award for our pilot project on bike lanes. That whole experience (I became personally involved in assisting with the project) descended into the nastiest storm of negativity I can remember in our city.
Still, this latest trip back into the spotlight reveals how little it often takes to make big differences in how people look at us, and how we look at ourselves.
You want to know what ultimately got us that global attention? It was the fact that a good portion of our parks trail system is being kept cleared of snow through the winter.
That’s the nub of it. Of course, the nub of it is surrounded by a lot more good fruit. Inefficient or not, our multi-use trails are an important part of Red Deer’s transportation system. That’s above being an important part of our city’s recreation system — and through that, an ever-growing part of our entire city’s culture.
We built it, kept it clear for use year-round and the people came.
Here’s a side note to illustrate how our trails have become such a valuable resource for both travel and for healthy living.
It literally took years for the Central Alberta Regional Trails Society to get a paved trail built between Blackfalds and Lacombe. The barriers were tremendous — not just the physical logistics, but because of the entire culture of this region.
People want trails, just not near them — even though trails immediately enhance property values and are proven to improve the life outcomes of people who live near the trails.
With the upside so well-documented by now, landowners should be pounding on council doors for a trail extension to go near them.
But our culture has been to say no to trails — and especially to say no if tax money is to go into building them.
But the Blackfalds-Lacombe trail got built and in its first year. Guess what the biggest complaint about the trail has been? It’s that more money isn’t being spent to keep the trail clear for use year-round.
Now that we have it, Red Deer could not cease snow clearing on our city trails any more than the Trans Canada Trail network could pull out the Blackfalds-Lacombe portion of it. The benefits are just too real, too immediate, too culturally-altering, to turn back.
Global sports equipment supplier Nike is the sponsor of the Designed to Move campaign, which seeks to inspire governments at all levels to pay attention to how their policies regarding design affect people’s health, for better or for worse.
The campaign hired a consultant, 8-80 Cities, to look around the world for places where governing bodies actually notice that their actions can either promote or impede the health of their citizens. The consultants discovered that Red Deer’s trails are widely networked, integrated into our transportation plans — and heavily used.
Winter, we have found, need not be a barrier to moving ourselves outdoors for either work or play — and that got the consultant’s attention.
I paid a visit to Nike’s website (www.designedtomove.org) and found one of their primary goals is to interest children in growing to become active adults.
They have a lot of science on their side. The site opens with the premise that today’s kids may well be the first generation ever to have poorer expected life outcomes than their parents. That’s because our car-centric, computer-centric, sedentary economy has produced a large population of overweight, unfit people.
Their thesis is that if we design walking, biking, running, sports and general activity into our day-to-day lives, starting early, that the current unhealthy trend of rising obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers can be reversed.
My thesis is that if we believe that exercise is good medicine, we will find ways to take it. When a significant portion of us realize that just walking or biking to work imparts a whole host of personal and societal benefits, we will demand that our municipal councils remove the barriers that keep us from just doing it.
But the belief has to come first.
Red Deer’s status as an international leader in designing active living right from our front doors to our workplaces and all places that we gather is only deserved if it stems from a belief that a healthy lifestyle matters — for us and for all those who will live here after we’re gone.
Two years ago, we tore out the bike lanes just weeks after getting an award for them. That’s OK, if we still believe it’s important to remove the design barriers that exist now for people to live a healthy, active life.
That may end up costing us a lot more money up front than simply clearing trails in winter. But hey, it’s the gumption that wins the awards.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.