The Active Living Programs

The built environment—that is, the physical and social environment in which people live—has become inhospitable to physical activity. Towns are built without sidewalks; suburbs are developed with stores reachable only by car; cities lack parks and recreation areas. People no longer walk to work, or to school, or even down the street to talk with their neighbors. Partly as a consequence of sedentary lifestyles, obesity rates have climbed dramatically over the last half-century, leading to increases in diabetes, heart attacks and other illnesses. Unless something is done to get Americans moving again, their health will continue to decline.

In 2000 and 2001 the Foundation developed a series of Active Living programs designed to restructure the built environment in ways that would make it easier for people to take walks, go for bike rides, or otherwise get some physical exercise. The idea was not a new one and it has been fashionable in urban planning circles for many years. What was new was that a foundation dedicated to improving health would seize upon an idea that was basically an urban planning one. Developing and overseeing programs required Foundation staff members—most of whom were trained in the medical care system, public health or social science research—to expand their horizons and learn about behavioral psychology, urban planning, education and transportation.

Recently the Foundation announced a $500-million programming effort to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity. The lessons from the Active Living portfolio of grants are being applied in the development of programs addressing the issue.