Healthy by Design is becoming new mantra for Billings, MT

Complete Streets are Safe Routes to Schools: Students cross a street in a Billings residential neighborhood equipped with crosswalk, sidewalks and ADA ramps.  Photo courtesy of Active Transportation Alternatives, LLC.

Complete Streets are Safe Routes to Schools: Students cross a street in a Billings residential neighborhood equipped with crosswalk, sidewalks and ADA ramps. 
Photo courtesy of Active Transportation Alternatives, LLC.

by Hillary Hanson, MS, MPH, CPH and Juliet Spalding, AICP

An exciting community partnership has provided solid ground for yet another stepping-stone toward improved community and transportation planning in Billings, Montana. On Aug. 22, 2011, the Billings City Council unanimously approved a “Complete Streets” policy to guide development of its new and reconstructed streets. 

Complete Streets refers to roadways that enable safe access for all users: motorists, pedestrians, transit riders, and bicyclists.  The policy was the result of the combined efforts of the health care community, the city’s planning, engineering, and public transit departments, the chamber of commerce, members of the development community, the school district, and many others—all part of a collaborative known as the Healthy By Design Advisory Committee.

Billings, the largest city in Montana and the seat of Yellowstone County, is home to 10.5 percent of all Montanans, approximately 104,170 people. (U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Census 2010). The city is also a regional hub for, among other things, health care services. Recognizing the importance of this regional role, the Chief Executive Officers from the Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, and RiverStone Health (Yellowstone County’s local health department) formed an affiliated partnership called the Alliance in 2001. The Alliance works collaboratively on community and regional health projects with the mission of identifying community health needs and then defining and implementing efficient and effective community solutions through integrated actions.

In 2005 and 2010, the Alliance sponsored a comprehensive Community Health Assessment (CHA) for Yellowstone County using national and state benchmarks to identify community-health improvement opportunities. Results of the 2010 CHA show that more than seven in ten Yellowstone County adults (72.9 percent) are overweight or obese, higher than both the statewide and national average and notably a ten percent increase over the 2005 CHA results (62.7 percent). 

To address local health issues identified in CHA, the Alliance’s member organizations concluded that a Healthy By Design Initiative could help improve several indicators in the population’s health. Today, the initiative provides a framework for Billings’ leaders to implement projects, programs, and policies that intentionally influence the environment in which its residents live, work, and play—so that positive health effects are enhanced and negative health effects are mitigated.

The creation of the Healthy By Design Advisory Committee brought together a valuable network of human assets including professionals with expertise in infrastructure, engineering, and planning; leaders and advocates from the largest medical center in a 500-mile radius; and a strong network of non-profits and community-action groups. The committee has seen numerous successes in the five years since its inception, including the completion of Health Impact Assessments on community projects and policies, the addition of a community health element to the 2008 Billings/Yellowstone County Growth Policy, and the creation of a recognition program for events and activities planned with health in mind.

Darlene Tussing, who serves as the community alternative modes coordinator through her Active Transportation Alternatives consulting firm, commutes on one of the more than six miles of bike lanes along arterial streets in Billings. Photo courtesy of Active Transportation Alternatives, LLC.

Darlene Tussing, who serves as the community alternative modes coordinator through her Active Transportation Alternatives consulting firm, commutes on one of the more than six miles of bike lanes along arterial streets in Billings. Photo courtesy of Active Transportation Alternatives, LLC.

Process

If we don’t have the time and money to do it (street construction) right, what makes you think we have the time and money to do it over?
— One supporter at the City Council meeting

Seeking to create a community in which all residents can easily access healthy choices in their everyday lives, the Healthy By Design Advisory Committee hosted an event in May 2009, aptly named, the Trailhead to Health Summit. Group activities and summit speakers—including nationally renowned pedestrian advocate Mark Fenton—helped business owners, public officials, and everyday citizens realize the connection between the health of the community and the built environment. The event successfully generated public enthusiasm and energy to move forward with the development of a Complete Streets policy for Billings.

Elements of the policy may include sidewalks, median islands, bike lanes, curb extensions, or timed-pedestrian signals at intersections. A complete street balances safety and convenience for everyone using the road. Complete streets can improve safety, bolster economic growth, accessible and efficient connections, ease transportation woes by providing more travel choices, encourage more walking and bicycling, and help children get safely to and from school.

In April 2010, Healthy By Design hosted a workshop as a follow-up to the Trailhead to Health Summit. Instructors from the National Complete Streets Coalition trained community stakeholders in the myriad benefits and applications of complete streets principles. Forty people attended, including city council members, county commissioners, and representatives from the engineering, health, emergency response, transit, and business communities.
In October 2010, Healthy By Design leadership gathered workshop attendees and other stakeholders for a frank discussion about whether to pursue a complete streets policy for Billings. The group discussed potential opportunities and benefits of a policy, as well as expected challenges. Following this meeting, an ad hoc committee was formed consisting of members from the city offices of transit, planning, and public works, the city council, the chamber of commerce, as well as area experts in economic development, public health, and healthcare. The objective of the Complete Streets Ad Hoc Committee (the Committee) was to draft a policy and present it to city council for a vote prior to the council’s composition changing with the next election (November, 2011).

During the same time as the committee was busy drafting a policy, a comprehensive community education campaign was launched. Educational presentations were presented to numerous boards and community groups in Billings. The goal was to educate the community about the concept of complete streets, inform residents a policy was being drafted, and invite them to attend a public meeting to provide feedback on the policy. 

Following several months of educational presentations and policy writing, a public meeting was held to review the draft policy and seek feedback. City council members, the mayor, city planning staff, and public works employees fielded questions from the public. A private development engineer and a representative for realtors responded to questions regarding property values and the costs of development. Comment cards were collected at the meeting and emails from attendees were received after the meeting. All input received was reviewed by the committee and the proposed policy was updated accordingly.

Last Phase

A view of Billings with the downtown and “Four Dances” recreational area in background on top of the rims. Photo by DeeAnn Redman.

A view of Billings with the downtown and “Four Dances” recreational area in background on top of the rims. Photo by DeeAnn Redman.

On July 18, 2011, the proposed policy was presented to the Billings City Council at a work session and the policy was set for vote on August 22, 2011. Following the work session, opposition to the policy began to emerge from certain community stakeholders. The policy’s potential financial implications (specifically, would such a policy put at risk state or federal funding for roadways?) were the primary reason for the opposition. Two weeks before the council was scheduled to take action on the draft policy, council members began to discuss the potential of tabling the policy for an unknown amount of time.

To ensure the policy was not tabled, the Healthy By Design leadership prepared a call-to-action email asking recipients to call their council member and express their support of the policy. Meanwhile, an awareness bike ride, organized by community members, was held the day before the council vote. About 100 participants of all ages turned out to display support for the policy. News coverage of the topic occurred throughout these two weeks including editorials both in favor and opposed to the policy.

On August 22, 2011, the draft policy was presented to city council. Over 15 people spoke in favor of the policy, including the Yellowstone County Health Officer, and numerous letters of support from various community boards were presented to the council. Following the public testimony, the policy was put to a vote and passed unanimously. The final policy resolution is found online at http://ci.billings.mt.us/DocumentView.aspx?DID=7465.

The Complete Streets policy provides a unique opportunity to improve the health, safety, and economics of a community. The Billings story represents an example of how collaboration with many different sectors of the community can help facilitate adoption of policies in the community related to the built environment. As one supporter penned at the council meeting, “If we don’t have the time and money to do it (street construction) right, what makes you think we have the time and money to do it over?”


3 Key Factors to Success

The Complete Streets policy in Billings received very little opposition until the final two weeks. Numerous factors contributed to the passage of this policy. 

  1. Involve Implementers:  Complete Streets requires time, effort, and political backing. It is essential to understand that any policy passed will require the support of those who are going to implement it—or it is merely a piece of paper. Prior to the initiation of policy writing, an honest discussion with local implementers (e.g. public works, planning, city council members) was held to determine the readiness level of a policy in Billings. In this case, the discussion came back with a resounding “yes.” Had that not been the response, more outreach may have been required prior to preparing a policy for consideration.
  2. Involve Community: When push comes to shove, it is essential to have support from not only community leaders but also a wide range of community members. In Billings, the push for the policy came from a group of community members. This fact played an important role in the decision-making by the city council. Those who spoke in favor of the policy and/or contacted their council member represented a wide range of community sectors. This diversity in supporters demonstrated to the city council the numerous possible benefits of a Complete Streets policy.
  3. Localize:  Every community is different and every audience is different. One of the best parts of Complete Streets is that it benefits many different users. Therefore, with each presentation, the message was tailored slightly to fit the audience’s interest, and local photographs were used to display the concept. In addition, because each community is unique it is essential the policy reflect that uniqueness in terms of design standards and regulatory controls. The committee utilized various sources and other policies to guide the policy; but every part was tailored to the preferences of Billings’ users. This was beneficial in the long-term because it was important to the council that the policy be written for Billings by Billings’ residents with full consideration given to the community’s needs, interests, and priorities.
     

Hillary Hanson, the Director of Population Health Services and the Deputy Health Officer for the local health department in Yellowstone County, RiverStone Health, oversees various health promotion, disease prevention, and emergency preparedness programs. Juliet Spalding, a Planner II with the City of Billings and Yellowstone County Planning Office, currently serves as the Subdivision Coordinator but enjoys many other aspects of current and long-range planning. 


Published in the February/March 2012 The Western Planner

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