Active Living by Design as a Political Project

Challenges at Three Levels

The Active Living by Design (ALbD) program envisioned a change model built around the 5Ps— preparation, partnership, programming, promotions and policy.

This commentary examines how another ‘P’—politics—has been essential to attaining the goal of promoting physical activity through changes to the built environment.

The accomplishments of the ALbD partnerships reveal political struggles at three distinct levels:

  1. Local Coalitions: ALbD leaders worked to create coalitions among the cycling community, committed walkers, public health professionals, New Urbanists, Smart Growth advocates, environmentalists, advocates for racial and social integration, and protectors of parks and waterways. ALbD funding afforded opportunities for identifying common aims, planning for action and cultivating a united political front.
  2. Government Authority: The ALbD had to deal with local, county, state and federal agencies that enforce laws and regulations governing the built environment. This work involved tracking institutional divisions of labor, identifying agency officials with both influence and interest in the ALbD agenda, developing a compelling and credible case for change, and articulating that case in countless public and private meetings.
  3. Elected officials: ALbD advocates sought political champions among officials who generally see both pros and cons in active living projects. The support of mayors, county commissioners and school board members was often required to combat sprawling development. The ALbD partnerships, by communicating community aspirations in the form of concrete proposals and plans, provided a new source of political power to counterbalance local interests that preferred business as usual.

Although politics was not an explicit part of ALbD’s formal mission, the refinement and deployment of political skill has proved integral to attaining the program’s aims.