Community: Making a Healthy Town

How do you make the layout of a town healthier for its residents? That's the question AARP and city officials in Albert Lea, Minn., had to tackle after the town won its bid to become the Vitality Project's test city.

Albert Lea city manager Victoria Simonsen knew that most of the decisions to lead healthier lives would fall on the individuals, but she also knew that the very design of the town could promote and encourage healthy living.

"We thought it was absolutely a great opportunity to enable, actually empower our residents to take more control of their health in a fun way," Simonsen told "Good Morning America" as a walking group of townspeople powered along past her window.

To give such groups room to walk meant a massive, city-wide makeover.

Walk This Way, Everywhere

Probably the biggest change the town itself underwent was the addition of connecting sidewalks throughout town as well as a five-mile-long walking path around one of the city's main lakes.

Before the renovations, if someone in town wanted to walk to nearly anywhere else, they would have to walk on the street or across a field to get there. But now, a sprawling system of sidewalks connect just about every part of the town, allowing people convenient access to a little healthy exercise just to get around town.

The most visible change is the five-mile loop around the city's main lake, said Simonsen, whose office overlooks the trail.

"It's a great thing? you just get to see everything going on and enjoy each other," she said. "It's just exciting."

Growing Together, Literally

Another initiative the town has committed to is the establishment and cultivation of public gardens.

There were some public gardens on the north side of town, Simonsen said, but when it dug up 30 more on the south side, "they were all snatched up very, very quickly."

"We have that going," she said.

The hope is that the gardens will promote not only healthy eating through the foods they produce, but can also save the community plenty of cash by not having to buy everything from a store.

Long Term Goals in Mind

Though the Vitality Project lasts just a few months, Simonsen said Albert Lea has its sights set on much more long term healthy living goals -- planning as far as 20 years into the future by amending the town's "comprehensive plan."

Part of that plan includes looking into narrowing streets and widening "shared user paths," large sidewalks that can accommodate bikers and rollerbladers as well as pedestrians. The plan also includes evaluating the viability of bike lanes.

The town has already put in for help from the federal government in the form of stimulus cash for the project, Simonsen said.

With the changes, Albert Lea hopes to keep its residents healthy long after the thrill of the Vitality Project has come and gone.