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Under the Microscope

April 1, 2010

  (7:50)

Welcome to Under the Microscope, KBIA’s weekly look at science, health and technology. Thanks for listening, I’m Elle Moxley.

It’s the end of an era in Columbia — Mayor Darwin Hindman will step down next week after 15 years in office. He’s known for his promotion of an active lifestyle… at 77, he still bikes to most meetings and city events. This week, we’re focusing on Hindman, his legacy and new research on the benefits of local park systems.

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Research suggests that parks with more features - things like trails, playfields and basketball courts - are more likely to be used for physical activity. Check out an interactive map of Columbia's park system.
We recently caught up with Mayor Hindman to discuss how he feels about leaving office after more than a decade.

Hindman’s efforts to promote active transportation earned him the Leadership for Healthy Communities Award last year, and in January, he got a shout-out from Michelle Obama for helping fight childhood obesity. But he’s the first to admit that his advocacy hasn’t always been popular.

“The reasons I really push for these is because I felt that they’re really important and there wasn’t anyone out pushing for them, as there are always people pushing for more streets, but I wanted to push for things I felt would not get pushed for.”

A lot has changed since Hindman took office in the mid-1990s. The field of kinesiology — that is, the study of exercise — is no exception. Dr. Andrew Kaczynski directs the Physical Activity and Public Health Laboratory at Kansas State University. He says that more and more, researchers are focusing on what they call the “built environment.”

“The built environment hasn’t been explicitly defined, but it’s what we see around us. The parks, of course, the urban infrastructure whether it be the streets/roads trails we see.”

Kaczynski’s focus is on parks… he’s currently working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on a comprehensive research project that looks at park use in Kansas City.

Earlier research suggests that how parks are built play a crucial role in whether people use them to exercise.

“We’ve started to realize that not all parks are created equal. Parks vary in terms of the types of features we find within them, with the number of supporting facilities — whether there are benches, restrooms, water fountains — parks vary in their quality as well, in terms of litter, vandalism and graffiti.”

Kaczynski says the more features a park has — things like trails and playfields and basketball courts — the more likely it is to be used for physical activity. A Canadian study found that kids who lived within about a half mile from a playground were five times more likely to be healthy weight.

I’m at Cosmo-Bethel Park, which is about a mile from where I live. With a walking trail and a big playfield where I can roughhouse with my dog, it’s a great place to get active. But I don’t make the trek very often. That’s because to get here, I have to walk along a busy stretch of road with no sidewalks and no shoulder. Kaczynski calls it walkability — a term that describes how easy it is for pedestrians to get around. My neighborhood, as it turns out, isn’t very walkable.

Here’s the problem with neighborhoods like mine: even people who want to get out and get moving, are deterred when they live in a place that isn’t very walkable. And people who aren’t inclined to exercise are more likely to do so just by virtue of living in a place that’s well-connected by sidewalks, trails and bike lanes.

The answer, Kaczynski says, is more land use diversity — interspersing residential development with commercial and institutional development, like shops, hospitals and schools.

It’s something Hindman’s been advocating for a long time.

“As part of the planning, you can plan for interconnectivity, you can plan for more public transportation, you can plan for more density so they can find the service they’re looking for closer to where they live.”

Janet Godon is the Program Coordinator for Columbia’s PedNet Coaltion, which encourages residents to choose active transportation when commuting to work and school.

Godon says the number of commuters in Columbia who chose active transportation is keeping with the national average of about one percent. But by some accounts, that number is much higher.

“We are certainly hearing anecdotal quotes locally from many many sources that indicates the number of cyclists has risen. We see that, you know we have a nice glass front to our building.”

When it comes to encouraging active transportation, Godon says PedNet has two things going for it. The first is the MKT trail, which Godon says Columbia Parks and Recreation maintains meticulously.

“That is my commute, and I can ride that commute in the morning, or the MKT trail in the morning, and it can be covered with rocks and debris, and by the time I go home in the evening, it’s been cleared. So I know that’s a priority for them.”

The second thing PedNet has going for it, Godon says, is Mayor Hindman.

Dr. Joseph LeMaster practices family medicine at the University of Missouri. He says doctors have traditionally made personal recommendations to patients who needed to get more exercise. But increasingly, he’s seeing that those recommendations don’t have much of an effect.

“I do that all the time with my patients, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that it actually changes people’s behavior. So these more environmentally implied interventions where we’re making changes that make it easier for people to be more active seem to be something that has more of an effect.”

In other words, doctors have to understand what environmental factors go into people’s ability to get physical activity. LeMaster says this has become increasingly obvious in rural parts of the state where doctors have teamed with community action networks to fight obesity and other chronic health problems.

Part of what Kaczynski is doing in Kansas City is developing a park audit tool, something parks and recreation departments have been using for a long time. But what Kaczynski wants is to put those resources into the hands of citizens and community leaders.

“They might be very interested in going out and evaluating their park, having that information so they can present it to a city council or a parks and recreation department to say, hey, we’ve got this park, but we could use some improvements, or our park needs some new facilities in it, we have all this information to support this claim and to back it up.”

Kaczynski’s park audit tool is currently in the development stages… but he says he and and his colleagues still have more data to collect.

As for Hindman, the research is confirming how he’s felt all along.

“That’s why I think the idea of parks within a half mile of everyone’s home — that’s a goal we have here in Columbia — and having trails and having bicycle lanes on the streets and having good intersections where kids can feel comfortable getting across because people can then so easily have convenient activity that they can fit into their day.”

Voters will select Columbia’s next mayor on April 6.

And you can find out more about the mayoral race — including more on each candidate’s priorities — on our website at KBIA.org. Special thanks to KBIA’s Lauren Hasler, who sat down with Hindman earlier this year to discuss his last term in office.

If you’d like to learn more about Columbia’s parks, or possibly find a park near your house, visit KBIA.org. There you’ll find an interactive map where you can explore the features of your local park.

Remember, podcasts of this and all our shows are available at KBIA.org.

Thanks for listening, I’m Elle Moxley.

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