The Road to Health
Could a couple blocks on Eighth Street become a catalyst for better regional health?
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 5, 2019
There’s a movement afoot to improve the health of the Grand Traverse region, and it might begin by reimagining Traverse City’s Eighth Street, between Boardman and Railroad avenues, as a “health district” — an area designed to promote walking, biking, and connections to the outdoors and healthy activities.
Reconstruction of the highly travelled east-and-westbound corridor will begin later this year; the city is re-engineering that section of road to make it narrower for vehicle traffic while adding room for bikes and trees and constructing well-marked crosswalks.
The larger vision of turning the corridor into a health district, which is being spearheaded by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, is more abstract and part of a larger effort to give the region a national reputation as a healthy lifestyle oasis.
PROJECT A HEALTHY IMAGE
At a December town-hall-style meeting at Raduno on Eighth Street about the “health district” plans, U.S Robotics co-founder and philanthropist Casey Cowell revisited comments he’d recently made about the health of people in Traverse City. Those statements, reported in the Traverse City Ticker (a daily online sister publication to Northern Express) the month before, unfavorably compared the health of Traverse City to other small communities that are also trying to attract tech companies and young employees.
“When we bring people here, and they’ve just been to Boulder, and we take them down Front Street, it’s not a pretty comparison,” Cowell had told The Ticker. “Our people aren’t as healthy. They’ll say, ‘Where are all the bike riders? Where are the cool groups I can hang out with?’”
Cowell began his December talk before a crowd of 60 or so business, government, and nonprofit leaders by counting himself among the less healthy area locals and recounting the litany of health problems and serious accidents he’s had in the last decade that have made it difficult for him to stay fit.
“I gained a lot of weight, and I lost a lot of conditioning,” the 66-year-old Cowell said.
His point, he said, is that despite his personal challenges, Traverse City and the region — with its natural resources, beauty, and countless opportunities for recreation — are well positioned to become known as a healthy oasis; they’re just not there yet. As Cowell sees it, reframing the area’s reputation would require a real improvement to the overall health of the community, and the Eighth Street Health District could be not only a symbolic start but also a model that could be replicated in other communities.
“We have a lot of stuff, and weknow about it, but the population at large … they don’t know about it,” Cowell said. A health district would “project a different attitude as a people and a culture about our place to live. … We can just do that, and most places are never going to do it.”
ENTHUSIASM FOR REDEVELOPMENT
Russ Soyring, Traverse City’s planning director, said the goal for Eighth Street’s immediate redevelopment is to reduce curb cuts — or the number of driveways that open onto the road — and to reduce the amount of parking as the corridor is developed.
“If you really want to get people walking and riding bikes, we can’t store cars everywhere,” he said.
Jean Derenzy, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said another part of the Eighth Street health district vision is to extend the DDA zone to the Eighth Street corridor, so that tax incentives can be more readily used to spur redevelopment. Currently, the vehicle-dominated route is lined with a hodgepodge of old and new storefronts and homes.
While the DDA can point to accomplishment after accomplishment in the redevelopment of parcels throughout downtown, Derenzy said Eighth Street would be different and more ambitious.
“This is really the first corridor that we’re focused on redeveloping. Corridors are hard,” she said.
Debra Graetz M.D., whose medical office is already in the corridor, is an enthusiastic supporter of the plans. She says a health district doesn’t mean there’s going to be a lot of doctor’s offices; rather, it means it will be a good place for biking, walking, and safely crossing the street, and there will be lots of trees and greenspace.
“Right now, Eighth Street is like a dead-end barrier — children can’t get across,” Graetz said.
FOR BETTER HEALTH: AFFORDABLE HOUSING
To implement the vision for a healthier region, Cowell helped bring Jesse Wolff to the GTRCF. Wolff successfully led a similar project in Colorado.
A lot goes into health and well-being, Wolff says, and improving the health of a community means a lot more than just improving access to medical care, which he said accounts for just 20 percent of a person’s health profile.
“We think of that healthcare component as our health,” he said. “But 80 percent of that is outside of those clinical walls. Forty percent, essentially, is your behavior — things that you actually can control to some extent — and then your zip code, where you live, is 40 percent.”
That’s why Wolff believes solving the region’s affordable housing problem should be one of the first steps taken to improve the region’s health; it’s also why the Eighth Street Health District should include affordable housing, he said. It may be counter-intuitive, but without good, affordable housing, achieving other health goals becomes very hard.
“It starts with housing,” he said. “If you don’t have consistent housing, if you’re moving, if you’re housing situation is tenuous, then it’s hard to hold a job, it’s hard to keep your kids in a good school, it’s hard to be part of a community. These are called social determinants of health. And if they don’t exist where you live, your health is going to be affected by that.”
Another priority in addressing health in the region will be looking at the lifestyle end of the equation. Statistics show some northern Michigan counties suffer from high rates of substance abuse and obesity.
There is no magical or simple way to solve these problems, but the creation of a health district would be a start, because it would be a place that through its design and composition would encourage people to lead healthier lives by walking and biking more and having better access to parks and trails, Wolff said.
“If a health district was created, if we were able to make it a showcase destination, as a symbol of our community commitment to health and well-being, that would be really cool,” Wolff said.
The health district, he said, would be ideally something that could be replicated in other communities around the region.
DOING SOMETHING ABOUT A “HEALTH GAP”
There are some encouraging and some alarming signs in the health statistics for the region, and some indications that, in the five counties around Traverse City (which is the GTRCF’s service area), there is a severe health gap across the area.
That means if a program can be found to work in, say, Grand Traverse County (which already ranks 4thout of 83 counties in Michigan for length and quality of life), there has to be a way to get that program to also work in Kalkaska County (which ranks 75thin that same survey).
“Figuring out what’s going on in Kalkaska will be a priority,” Wolff said. “A healthy economy improves your health — there’s no question about it, right? So, from a strategic standpoint, how can the region and its leadership improve economic conditions in Kalkaska to help lift health outcomes?”
On the other end, just because Grand Traverse County ranks 4th(and Leelanau County ranks 5th) is not a reason to be complacent and believe that a healthy community has been achieved. All those high rankings mean, Wolff said, is that Grand Traverse and Leelanau rank high in a state that ranks very poorly in health outcomes.
“When you look at Michigan itself, 32nd or 34thin the country, in terms of overall health, being a top 10 county in Michigan, it’s good on an absolute basis, but on a relative basis to the rest of the country, you’re still not doing very well in some pockets,” he said.
COMING UP WITH A MEASUREMENT
How, then, can Traverse City’s or the region’s overall health best be measured?
One useful metric would be the Gallup Well-Being rankings, which compare metro areas on an index of factors that go into health and happiness. (Overall, Michigan’s well-being score ranks 32ndamong states.)
There’s a problem, though. Traverse City is too small to be considered a metro area, Wolff said.
“I’ve asked Gallup if they would include us, and they won’t,” Wolff said. “They said, We would calculate a score for you, but it would cost, like, a hundred thousand dollars.”
Wolff, though, said he knows the data Gallup collects to come up with a score, and he believes that GTRCF can conduct its own survey in order to figure out where Traverse City would rank compared to metro areas like Boulder or Portland, Oregon.
“We’re going to do a survey, a well-being survey. We’re going to use Michigan State, and we will get pretty close. I know what questions they ask, I know how they score things. We’ll get close. But then we’ll have a baseline well-being measurement, that’s correlated to Gallup for this region, and then we’ll come back next year and do the same well-being survey again and see if the needle moves. And it doesn’t move a lot. Like a good year would be a three percent change in your well-being scores.”
How Active and Healthy Are We Up North?
In a measure of overall length and quality of life in 83 Michigan counties in 2017, northwest lower Michigan counties ranked as follows:
Grand Traverse 4
In a measure of the positive health behaviors, clinical care availability, social and economic factors, and the physical environment, we are ranked as follows:
Grand Traverse 4
The percentage of the population that is without any physical activity during leisure time:
Grand Traverse 18.8
United States 16.2
Percentage of adults who are overweight but not obese:
Grand Traverse 35.1
United States 35.8