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Changing the Built Environment to Encourage Physical Activity

Changing the Built Environment to Encourage Physical ActivityGet Active Orlando (GAO) was originally part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living by Design initiative. Started in 2004, with much learning along the way, GAO has evolved its approach for creating built environments that encourage physical activity.



Focusing on policy frameworks and engaging community partnerships, GAO has been able to create sustainable changes in community design by recognizing the connection between land-use planning, transportation, public health, and economic development. The initiative’s most important goal is to reduce health disparities by reducing community barriers to routine physical activity. That goal is grounded in the belief that by making opportunities more accessible, physical activity is easy, safe, convenient, affordable and practical or active living choices really are no longer a choice, they are how we live.


Designated in 2006 as the Active Living Advisory Committee for the City of Orlando Mayor and Council, GAO started the process for change by defining the goals for achievement, researching the different levels of policy at the organization, local, state, and federal levels, and utilizing national frameworks such as Safe Routes to School, Smart Growth, Active Living by Design, and Complete Streets for guidance. These strategies all contributed to creating city-wide policies and plans that form the basis for a balanced land use and transportation system that puts people first.


Aiming to incorporate active living considerations into the city culture, one of the policy changes adopted into the Families, Parks and Recreation Element of The City of Orlando Comprehensive Plan states:


Active Living by Design is a program meant to create environments with comprehensive supports for active living. Residents should have easy access to physical activity programs and healthy environments should be considered a high priority. Workplaces, schools, and other organizations should be encouraged to provide regular incentives which promote physical activity. Healthy community environments should provide safe, convenient, and integrated facilities such as sidewalks, greenways, and neighborhood parks that enable people to be active.


Built Environement SurveyTo implement this policy, Get Active Orlando first conducted a survey of the downtown Orlando built environment. Assessing the physical environment and how people functioned within the environment were integral components of GAO’s goals. Elements reviewed looked at the street network for the presence of sidewalks, street trees, and bike lanes; building placement, if there was a mix of uses (residential/office/retail/restaurant); and if there were parks or green space.


The assessment created a Level of Service (LOS) benchmark of the physical environment for bicycle and pedestrian movement, helping the partnership gain an understanding of the assets and impediments to active living. Replicable elsewhere, the survey utilized standardized LOS concepts for quantitative data, based on a model developed by Sprinkle Consultants, Inc. and perception questions for qualitative data focused on safety, shade and visual appeal of the street environment.


Development guidelines inspired by survey resultsThe data collected from the survey assessment has influenced various plans throughout the City including the Growth Management/Comprehensive Plan, Downtown Orlando Transportation Plan (2006), Urban Streetscape Guidelines, the Downtown Orlando Transit Report (2007), the Citywide Bicycle Plan (2008), and the Families, Parks and Recreation Vision Plan (2010). All of the elements surveyed are what set the context for communities to exist, connecting people to places; getting the mix of elements just right helps create vibrant and active spaces.


Due to these policy frameworks and plans created over the last five years under the influence of GAO, several successful community gardens and park projects have resulted; in particular, Z.L. Riley Park and the Orlando Urban Mountain Bike Park.


Z.L. Riley ParkZ.L. Riley Park opened in May 2010 and was instigated by a highway widening project. The unique funding partnership leveraged resources from several sources for a total $1.5 million. Located in the downtown Orlando Parramore neighborhood, funding came from the Orlando/Orange County Expressway Authority, a State of Florida recreation grant, and a federal housing Community Development Block Grant. The park includes a playground and walking loop utilized by local residents and afterschool programs for daily physical activity that is safe and conveniently located.


Scheduled to open in Spring 2011, the Orlando Urban Mountain Bike Park is a community driven effort that makes use of vacant City park land, $50,000 in construction funding from the Winter Park Health Foundation, operation and maintenance provided by the Ocala Mountain Bike Association, and separate federal transportation funding to construct a bicycle/pedestrian connection through the park to a local trail network.


The goals of Get Active Orlando have been accomplished by staying focused on the core vision, implementing incremental and consistent change, with each step building on the previous, to create healthier and livable communities.


Author : Malisa Mccreedy, AICP
Director of Happiness and Health
Walkable and Livable Communities Institute (WALC)


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  1. Dan Burden, Executive Director of Walkable and Livable Communities Institute is conducting a town making tour in North Carolina prior to the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. The tour starts Monday, January 31, a few spaces have been added and the deadline to attend extended. The tour is a fantastic way to learn how communities are changing their built environments to encourage active living:


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