Sidewalks: Path to better health

Direct & indirect steps businesses can take

By Richard Crespin

Sidewalks. Three times they came up for a vote and three times they got voted down in my suburban neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Our community grew up at the height of the automobile and walkability didn’t factor into the plan. The established (read older) neighbors love their lawns and giving up ten feet of grassy suburbia, especially if you don’t have kids or walk to the Metro, sounds like an attempt to steal their American dream.

But sidewalks highly correlate with health, Dr. John Peters of the Anschutz Center at the University of Colorado told the audience of over 100 Denver-area leaders at the first-ever Better Health Through Economic Opportunity Forum. The least obese cities in America – New York and San Francisco – also have the most sidewalks per capita. When you build sidewalks, people use them and stay fit. Which made me think about my neighbors. Many of them – especially the older folks – meticulously care for their lawns and see sidewalks as the destroyer of lawns; not the keys to health. In addition to sidewalks correlating with low obesity, mobility and motility in later life, they also highly correlate with happiness. No one ever explained sidewalks in those terms: as the path to a lifetime of health and happiness.

And sidewalks bring people together. They build communities and businesses, promoting foot traffic and making it easier for folks to get to and from work and play. This intersection between business and community health inspired our work with the U.S.

Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to kick off the Better Health through Economic Opportunity Campaign in Denver to strengthen the leadership role of businesses in promoting community-wide health. Over the next 18 months together we’ll bring the Better Health through Economic Opportunity Campaign to a total of 10 cities, including Oklahoma City, Orlando, Memphis, Los Angeles, Ft. Worth, and more. Why? More people work at, live near, buy from, invest in, or otherwise interact with businesses than any other institution in society. So who better to lead the charge building healthier communities?

Businesses can do a lot to promote health and not always for a lot of money. Much has been made of employer- provided healthcare. But what’s more interesting and more impactful is what businesses can do to keep people out of the healthcare system in the first place. Most adults spend more than half their waking lives at work – even more if you count commuting. That perfectly positions businesses to lead on health.

At the Denver Forum we heard inspiring stories of how companies have teamed up with local governments and nonprofits to form public-private partnerships to improve community-wide health across Colorado. That is why in the coming weeks the Better Health Through Economic Opportunity Campaign will release details on its “Healthy 10 Awards”—recognizing excellence in local public-private partnerships that have made a difference in the health of their communities. Denver set the bar pretty high, but we’re already hearing exciting stuff from Oklahoma City and Memphis.

After listening to Dr. Peters, the lack of sidewalks near my home took on a new meaning. We’re a small firm so I pressed the experts in Denver to come up with a list of cheap and easy things we can do to promote health at work and beyond. Here’s the short list we came up with that you can adapt:

1. Healthy talk. Just start conversations about health. Got a newsletter? Include some health tips. Does your CEO regularly address employees? Have her talk about her own exercise routine to set a positive example.

2. Healthy competition. A lot of us have wearables (e.g., FitBits) or phone-based apps. Create fun, team-based competitions. Who took more steps last month: HR or Accounting?

3. Healthy snacks. Got a break room? Replace the processed snacks with fresh foods – even just on Mondays to give people a better start to the week.

4. Healthy perks. Talk to that near-by gym. See if they’ll offer employee discounts – especially if employees can also shower there when they run or bike to work.
5. Healthy building. Talk to your landlord. Would they install a bike rack or showers?

6. Healthy “sidewalks”. When local public policy issues – sidewalks, bike lanes, green-spaces – come up, come down publicly on the side of healthier choices.

7. Healthy partnership. Look around your community. Local nonprofits and the city, county, or state government may already have community health programs underway. Reach out and find common cause. Who knows? If you do amazing things your partnership could win a Healthy 10 Award and come to DC for the National Summit to share and learn from other business and community leaders.

To stay in touch with the Campaign or to ask that we bring a Forum to your city, visit

(Richard Crespin is CEO of CollaborateUp, a Washington, DC-based consultancy, and a senior fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.)
Posted August 13, 2015 in 25115