With America’s spiralling obesity epidemic showing no signs of slowing down, one Georgia city has decided to tackle the problem head on, and is taking advantage of technology to help reach its ambitious goals for a fitter populace.
The Savannah Story
The city of Savannah is the oldest in the state of Georgia, and was its first capital, long before Atlanta took the crown as the USA’s most populous state capital. Like much of the American deep south, poverty is high, with over 21% of the population living below the poverty line, and with high levels of poverty come high levels of obesity.
Working around the principles of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign towards fighting obesity, the Healthy Savannah non-profit organisation formed with a mission to create “an environment that makes a healthy choice an easy choice”.
Recognising that obesity and poor fitness levels had to be tackled at a grass roots level the Healthy Savannah campaign has been awarded with a £150,000 grant from the state in recognition of its positive efforts to date in genuinely making strides to improve the health and fitness levels of the local population. This grant will enable the organisation to further improve healthy eating initiatives and infrastructure improvements to promote the virtues of good diet and regular exercise. But how do they determine where to initiate such improvements?
Technology for Good
The initiatives put in place by Healthy Savannah focused on making all areas more accessible to non-car users. This involved provisioning for cycle lanes, more sidewalks, safer road crossings and better public transport, but in order to assess the city’s needs and where demand was greatest Healthy Savannah held a series of community meetings to gauge the precise requirements from street to street.
In holding the community engagement meetings, the group utilised audience response systems (small voting keypads like the audience have on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire) enabling the residents involved to vote in confidence and have a say on the decision making process without needing to speak out in front of others or being pressured into following the crowd. Audience response systems have been rapidly growing in popularity in recent years, popping up in universities, conferences and exhibitions, focus group panels and now public planning meetings. The simple implementation of such systems means that results of polls and votes can be instantly collated and assessed, whilst the voters involved don’t need to divulge the nature of their specific responses, as would be obvious with a simple show of hands poll.
Listening to Locals
A full ordinance of the city’s existing transport infrastructure was conducted and local citizens’ input into this process has been invaluable in identifying what could easily have ended up as missed opportunities if left solely to local government transport planners. It’s one thing for officials to make assumptions on day to day traffic patterns but if they’re only working with what they can see rather than what residents would be doing if they were able to, how are they going to see where there’s a need for a new cycle route or pedestrian access space?
The community meetings have enabled everyone to be heard, both collectively and individually, and this is a key proponent of what in Britain is termed the “Big Society”. The principle being a devolution of power from central government to a more local level, allowing for local community members to have more influence on local policy and improvements for the wellbeing of all. And because coalition members can collaborate on community projects to overcome obstacles there is a far greater sense of real progress being made, with less red tape. If a problem is aired in a public forum among other interested parties, there is a greater chance of somebody else having the connections necessary to potentially resolve the issues.
Of course the key to healthier living is promoting simple lifestyle changes for the better rather than trying to react to the problems we all know are woven into modern life in the Western world. In a capitalist democracy we’re not going to ban burger joints and ice cream parlours, just like we aren’t going to forbid use of motor vehicles. This is a nation in love with the internal combustion engine and trying to pick a fight with the automobile industry is a sure fire recipe for failure.
However, promoting sensible lifestyle choices to children and young adults who are the future of the country is going to have a far greater chance of bearing fruit in the long term. If you make it easy to walk or cycle to school or college and even incentivise making the school run under your own steam, that’s when you’re going to see the change for good, and that’s exactly what Michelle Obama has been so keen to promote. It’s just interesting to see a city realising those ideals in what has become a republican stronghold in recent years!