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Louisville, KY

Some see rejection as a sign of failure. Not in Louisville. After being turned down for Steps to a Healthier U.S., a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, partners rallied, strengthened their ideas and submitted a proposal to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for an Active Living by Design (ALbD) grant. They were one of only 25 communities (out of 966 who applied) to be selected. Talk about a great come-from-behind story!

mayors mileSince 2003, they’ve leveraged the power of committed elected officials, outspoken and influential health directors, and a strong and diverse partnership to intensify their work around healthy eating and active living. Not that it’s been easy. Louisville has high obesity rates (64.9% of adults are overweight or obese according to 2009 BRFSS), and bourbon and fast food are economic engines for the state. In fact, Yum! Brands Inc, which owns and franchises KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, is headquartered in Louisville. Their presence is undeniable. In addition to the proliferation of fast food venues, they also bought naming rights to the arena where the University of Louisville’s men’s and women’s basketball teams play. Drive down Main Street and you’ll see a big sign: “KFC Yum! Center.”

However, the commitment to form a healthier Louisville is strong. Through the years, they have obtained grant funding from a variety of public and private sources, including Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC). Their diverse partnership has included the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, the Transit Authority of River City, the Mayor’s office, Louisville Metro Departments of Public Health & Wellness, Planning & Design Services and Parks, the Presbyterian Community Center, Shawnee Neighborhood Association, the YMCA of Greater Louisville, Jefferson County Public Schools, and others.

Marigny Bostock, Community Health Supervisor for the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness and Project Director for Louisville’s HKHC grant, has seen tremendous collaboration among these partners. “Departments that used to work separately are now in the practice of coordinating efforts and leveraging resources.” And it’s not just agencies making changes. “What I like about working on HKHC is the emphasis on grassroots community engagement,” Marigny said. “We still have a ways to go to engage residents at the deepest level, but more neighborhood residents are involved than ever before and that’s exciting.”

And so are their accomplishments. They expanded the city’s bicycle lanes, created an Active Living committee, and produced a viral, educational rap about how to put your bike on the bus. “We felt it was important to promote public transit since most transit users walk an average of 19 minutes a day and cities with great transit systems have less of an issue with obesity,” said Nina Walfoort, one of the early project directors for ACTIVE Louisville.

During the development of Liberty Green, a HUD HOPE VI project, partners advocated for pocket parks and a walkable streetscape. They’ve expanded from three neighborhoods to twelve and are very focused on pedestrian safety. They have a formal pedestrian safety action plan and a neighborhood planning process that involves citizens in walking audits to determine priority fixes or changes. Furthermore, they created a safety awareness campaign called StreetSense, a play off the name of the horse who won the 2007 Kentucky Derby.

The Mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement (MHHM) was started with former Mayor Jerry Abramson and focused on active living through walking and biking. In addition to the above changes, there are 20 Mayor’s Miles (signed walking paths that connect to key destinations) throughout the city. They have also helped establish connections from their 12 target neighborhoods to the Louisville Loop, a 25-mile shared-use path that will eventually become a 100-mile loop around the city.
MHHM continues under current Mayor Greg Fischer, who is adding a stronger focus on food systems. New community and school gardens are in place and thriving because of resident leadership. By leveraging other grant funding, they’ve partnered with seven corner store owners and the YMCA of Greater Louisville to install Healthy in a Hurry sections of fresh produce in areas without or with few full-service grocery stores. And Mayor Fischer recently initiated a Food Policy Advisory Council to develop policies in support of a just, sustainable food system to improve public health, spur economic development in urban and rural neighborhoods, and increase access to healthy food for all Louisville Metro citizens.

Just like StreetSense (the horse), Louisville is determined. The derby winner was an epic underdog. He came from nearly last position to win by more than two lengths in an unexpected victory. Louisville, too, has struggled. Not many were betting on their success at first. However, Louisville’s strong pace, determined leaders and involved residents have propelled them to a position of national leadership.