Walkable communities could help Alaska tackle its health problems • Alaska Beacon

According to a national ranking, the state of Alaska ranks 39th in public health quality and 48th in access to care. The first step to addressing these issues could be increasing the state's health budget and investing in facilities. Equally important is improving public infrastructure, which will encourage us to choose healthier and more environmentally friendly options as we travel from point A to point B. Those running in state, local, and congressional elections this fall must ask themselves how they plan to make our communities more walkable to improve our well-being and our economy.

I moved to Fairbanks in the summer of 2023 for graduate school. A friend picked me up from the airport and gave me my first tour of the city. Despite a shrinking population, Fairbanks is pleasantly spread out. Our first conversation turned to how to get around the city. I was quickly told that Fairbanks is impossible to walk to due to low winter temperatures and that the bus system, which doesn't run on weekends, is mostly decorative. Driving is just more convenient, my friend told me, and I should have known better before moving to Alaska without a driver's license. But seriously?

The idea of ​​driving everywhere to avoid the cold is a purely American phenomenon. There are numerous subarctic and arctic cities whose residents do not need their cars even at -40 degrees. Reykjavik in Iceland and Tromsø in Norway, both at a similar latitude to Fairbanks, are more walkable and have a public transit system that is not only widely used but also well maintained. Despite the cold winters, these cities also offer the option of renting bicycles and electric scooters.

While it may be true that Reykjavik and Tromsø are much flatter than Fairbanks and therefore more walkable, we should ask ourselves what the dispersed urban structure of Alaska's communities means for our health and economic growth.

Walkability leads to longevity

A common feature of the areas with the highest concentration of centenarians, known as “Blue Zones,” is walkability. Residents of Blue Zones like Sardinia and Okinawa are likely to live long enough to see their great-grandchildren because of the high quality of local food and strong family and social networks. Blue Zones have accessible public infrastructure that encourages walking, biking, and the use of public transit. While Alaska won't become a Blue Zone overnight, improving our infrastructure could be a start.

According to the state Department of Health, two-thirds of Alaskan adults are overweight or obese, 31% have high blood pressure, and more than 50% don't exercise at least once a week. While cars may be essential for the majority of our population, they certainly don't contribute to our vitality. Imagine living in a community where walking (even in the colder months), biking, and taking the bus are the new normal.

Good for our economy

Building a community where you don't have to rely on a car is good for the local economy. Pedestrian-friendly cities with good bus connections attract tourists who have no interest in driving on icy roads.

Making our neighborhoods more accessible is not an impossible mission. The small city of Albert Lea, Minnesota, built over 9 miles of sidewalks and 3 miles of bike lanes and relocated dozens of small businesses downtown. With a clear strategy, Albert Lea increased the life expectancy of its residents by 2.9 years and saved local employers $7.5 million in health care costs. Alaska has no excuse. We have a duty to make our communities more accessible, healthier and safer.

As we enjoy the coming summer months, we should consider what kind of future we want for our cities and towns. I choose the kind where I don't hesitate to grab my bike from the garage on a cold January day and take my time walking to the grocery store on a Saturday morning. If you're running in the election this fall, consider how you can make your district healthier by investing in citizen-friendly public infrastructure.

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Anna Harden

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