June 11, 2013

Active Towns Blog #1

Launching Active Towns at CNU21

The 21st annual meeting of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) just happened about two weeks ago, May 29th thru June 1st in Salt Lake City, Utah. A meeting which is attended by some of the brightest minds in urban design and planning, architecture and community development. And I thought: “What better place and time to launch the Active Towns Initiative?”

How so? Well, having attended last year’s Congress in West Palm Beach, Florida I suspected that I would have many opportunities to explain why an exercise scientist with an emphasis in health promotion and disease prevention, that’s me, had infiltrated their party celebrating good urbanism.

That’s not to say that I don’t also consider myself a “New Urbanist”, because in fact, I do. It’s just that I happen to get to the party, using a much different path compared to 99.9% of the other attendees at this important conference. A pathway I ultimately tend to describe as I explain my presence and what the heck I mean by “Active Towns”.

The meeting most certainly did not disappoint. I had a multitude of chances to tell my story and practice the Active Towns message and it was reconnecting with some cool people I met for the first time last year.

Oh yeah and the conference itself was wonderful as well. It proved once again to be very educational and inspiring and even included a lot of neat non-scripted off-hours discussion, debate and collaboration. Traits that, as I understand, go back to the original Congresses so many years ago.


Photo: Salt Lake City, Utah explorations during lunch

Considering that this is my first official Active Towns blog, perhaps I should put all that practice to good use and describe the Initiative for you the reader. But first, I’d like to give you a little bit more information about me and where I am coming from in hopes that it will help to bring some context to the message.

As I mentioned earlier, my background is firmly grounded in health promotion and from 1988 to 2004 I was primarily working with corporations to decrease their health care costs and enhance their corporate competitiveness through the implementation of employee wellness programs and onsite fitness centers.

For recreation I enjoy participating in triathlons and running events, so I tend seek out safe and enjoyable places to swim, bike and run. I had the good fortune to move to Boulder, CO in 1996. As many of you probably know, Boulder is an amazingly active place where trails, pathways and bike lanes, as well as other outdoor and indoor recreational opportunities abound. It also features a culture of physical activity with residents and visitors of all ages and abilities engaged in what seems to be a rhythm of perpetual movement.


Photo: That’s me participating in Ironman Hawaii October 2012, All Smiles!

After 9 delightful years in Boulder a new job opportunity emerged and I moved to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. Once I arrived in Honolulu I was astounded by the relative unfriendliness of the built environment to anyone not driving a motor vehicle. Out of frustration I sold my bike, hung up my running shoes and got into outrigger canoe paddling and surfing, I thought well, “when in Rome…”.

After just 12 months I was fortunate enough to be given a “Get off Oahu” pass to take a position on Hawaii Island, which is also known as the Big Island, due to its large land mass, not its population count.

I settled into Kailua Kona, the main community on the dry or leeward side of the Island, I immediately got involved with the Ironman World Championship (triathlon) as a volunteer and was inspired to start cycling and running once again.

I also soon became aware of and involved in the local bike and pedestrian advocacy organization (PATH). They had been working on their mission to safely connect the people and places Hawaii Island with trails, pathways and bikeways since the 1980’s. One thing led to another and I found myself on the PATH Board of Directors. I was suddenly introduced to the rather concept of the built environment influencing bike and pedestrian friendliness.

I then started reading the works of Jan Gehl, James Howard Kunstler, Andres Duany and Richard Jackson, MD, just to name a few. I also began following the blog and podcasts of Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns.

It was at this time that I had my epiphany: how our cities and neighborhoods are designed can have a tremendous impact on our lives as individuals as well as the overall health and vitality of our communities. This enlightenment was powerful for me, as I had a better appreciation for and could explain the special environment that I experienced in Boulder and believe exists in other select Active Towns across the country and around the world.

As a health promotion professional my goal was to help people lead healthier, more fulfilled lives and it was clear to me that much more physical activity was needed. With this came the realization that an Active Town is just the sort of inviting and invigorating environment required to welcome and encourage the active lifestyles necessary for optimal health, wellbeing and happiness.


Photo: Family enjoying the pathways in Steamboat Springs, CO

Thus I felt compelled to spread and share this message and in November of 2011 I founded Advocates for Healthy Communities, Inc. and applied with the IRS for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status which was granted in January 2013. I am honored to have nine fantastic members in addition to myself to serving on the Board of Directors. Our goal with the Active Towns Initiative is help communities become desirable healthy active places.

In Phase I of the Initiative we plan to identify and travel to those places across the country that are commonly known as or perceived to be vibrant, active communities where there is a natural energy and vitality to the culture and everyone seems to be in a state of perpetual human powered movement. While visiting the city we will document their unique histories and features: both manmade and natural, as well as its character and “spirit of place” as it relates to physical activity. We will strive to meet with and interview a variety of community leaders to better understand how the area emerged as a place which supported and encouraged physical activity: an Active Town. Each community examined will become its own case study to be published

In Phase II of the Initiative we will work with communities to improve and enhance their environment to become more inviting and invigorating. We will use the Active Towns case studies as real world examples to assist these cities making tangible and realistic changes. Since we anticipate having a variety of different types and sizes of communities from many regions of the country, we are confident that we will have a relevant comparison example for each intervention.

As I alluded to above, Active Towns come in many different types and sizes. Some common themes we are seeing are the following: colleges towns such as Boulder, CO and Davis, CA; big cities such as New York and Denver; destination or resort communities such as Park City, UT and Steamboat Springs, CO; capital cities such as Madison, WI and Salt Lake City, UT.


Photo: Boulder, CO: Summer Mountain Bike Camp

In conclusion, the Active Towns Initiative is about identifying and celebrating the successes communities are having in creating a culture of activity while combating the epidemic of sedentary lifestyles. It’s also about the creation of a comprehensive database and consultative support system to help other communities become healthier, more desirable places as well.

Please feel free to give us your comments and/or suggestions for emerging and established Active Towns on our Facebook page or by email to: info@activetowns.org Also, we’d be honored to accept your tax deductible donation should you be so inclined to support the Initiative. Click here to donate.

Oh yes, and thanks so much for making it to the end of this extraordinarily long first blog entry!

johns signature blue




John D Simmerman, MS
Co-Founder, President & CEO

Advocates for Healthy Communities, Inc. ~ Actives Towns Initiative