OPINION: Walkable communities could help Alaska tackle its health problems

One national ranking shows the state of Alaska is 39th in quality of public health and 48th in health care access. The first step to address these issues could be increasing the state’s health care budget and investing in facilities. Equally significant is improving public infrastructure, which will incentivize us to choose healthier and nature-friendly options as we move from Point A to Point B. Those running in state, local, and Congressional elections this fall must ask themselves how they plan to make our communities more walkable to improve our well-being and economy.

I moved to Fairbanks for graduate school in the summer of 2023. A friend picked me up from the airport and gave me my first tour of the town. Despite a shrinking population, Fairbanks is comfortably spread out. Our first conversation was about how to get around town. I was quickly told that Fairbanks is not walkable due to its low winter temperatures and that the bus system, which does not operate on the weekends, is mainly decorative. Driving is simply more convenient, my friend told me, and I should have known better before moving to Alaska without a driver’s license. Really, though?

The idea of driving everywhere to avoid the cold is a uniquely American phenomenon. There are numerous sub-Arctic and Arctic cities where residents do not rely on their cars, even at minus 40 degrees. Reykjavik in Iceland and Tromsø in Norway, both at a similar latitude as Fairbanks, boast a higher level of walkability and a public transit system that is not just widely used but also well-maintained. Despite cold winters, these cities also offer the option of renting bikes and electric scooters.

It may be true that Reykjavik and Tromsø are much less spread out than Fairbanks, which makes them more walkable. However, we should still ask ourselves what the scattered urban structure of Alaska’s communities means for our health and economic growth.

Walkability leads to longevity

One common characteristic among areas with the highest concentrations of centenarians, known as “Blue Zones,” is walkability. Residents of Blue Zones like Sardinia and Okinawa are likely to live long enough to see their great-grandchildren because of the high quality of homegrown food and good family and social networks. Blue Zones have accessible public infrastructure, encouraging walking, biking, and using public transit. While Alaska may not become a Blue Zone overnight, improving our infrastructure could be a starting point.

According to the state’s Department of Health, two-thirds of Alaskan adults are overweight or obese, 31% have high blood pressure, and more than 50% do not exercise on a weekly basis. While cars may be indispensable to the majority of our population, they sure do not contribute to our vitality. Imagine living in a community where walking (even in colder months), biking and using a bus are the new normal.


Good for our economy

Building a community where one does not need to rely on a car is good for local economies. Walkable towns and cities with frequent bus connections attract tourists who do not have an interest in driving on icy roads.

Making our neighborhoods more accessible is not a “mission impossible.” The small town of Albert Lea in Minnesota added more than nine miles of sidewalks and three miles of bike lanes and moved dozens of small businesses to the downtown area. With a clear strategy, Albert Lea increased its residents’ lifespan by 2.9 years and saved $7.5 million in health care costs for local employers. Alaska has no excuse. We have a duty to make our communities more accessible, healthier and safer.

As we enjoy the summer months, we should consider what kind of future we want to see for our towns and cities. I choose the kind where I will not think twice before taking my bike out of the garage on a cold January day and where I will peacefully walk to the grocery store on a Saturday morning. If you are a candidate running in this fall’s elections, consider how you plan to make your district healthier by investing in people-friendly public infrastructure.

Jus Tavcar is a graduate student of Arctic and Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This commentary was originally published at the Alaska Beacon.

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