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By Dr. Rose M. Gowen, Brownsville City Commissioner
Science and research and a community along the Texas-Mexican Gulf Coast border were not partners 10 years ago. Quite honestly, 10 years ago, Brownsville (like many other communities) would not have known how or why to begin such a relationship. Today, public health is a cornerstone in Brownsville's efforts to create a vibrant, prosperous, and healthy community.
Eleven years ago, the Regional Area Health Science Center brought the UT School of Public Health (UTSPH) to town. Since then, researchers have watched over who we are and what our risks are. Findings thus far include a 52% obesity rate and not surprisingly a nearly 30% rate of diabetes. In an area with high poverty and high health disparity, the perfect storm swirls around us.
In 2009 a long-range plan known as Imagine Brownsville was developed. Among the determinants were the need to create a walkable and bicycle friendly city with a sense of place and the need to protect our unique environment punctuated by a network of natural waterways called "resacas" throughout the city.
Community members, policy makers, and professors began working together to consider solutions. Brownsville has not been bicycle or pedestrian friendly and kayaking opportunities have been narrow. Few bicycle lanes, many disconnected sidewalk segments, and many too-shallow resacas run through the city. Like many other cities in the country, urban sprawl and dependence on automobile transportation rule.
In 2008 a team of City staff, Su Clinica Familiar (community health clinic), and the UTSPH began a farmers market to promote fresh fruits and vegetables. The Brownsville Farmers' Market is held in Linear Park at the trailhead of the Historic Battlefield Trail (the only hike and bike trail in the city), offering the opportunity and attraction of active transportation along the trail. Shoppers arriving by bicycle are no longer an oddity today.
In 2011 the Public Utilities Board began moving forward on a plan for resaca restoration. The Resaca Restoration plan will take four resacas a year and dredge them, removing years of built-up sludge, thus improving water storage, renewing ecosystems, and allowing for kayak trail development.
Community-wide programs teaching the health and economic value of active living and healthy eating draw more partners each year to join the founding partners of the UTSPH and the City. January 11, 2013 will be the kick off of the fourth Brownsville Biggest Loser Challenge that attracted over 1000 participants in the third season. The Challenge has produced two Guinness World Records and new active travelers!
City policy is being reviewed, and in 2011, a gap closed with the passing of an ordinance for commercial development (not just residential) to include sidewalks. October 2012 was an exceptional month for a budding bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly Brownsville. Bicyclists and other vulnerable travelers are now better protected by a Safe Passing ordinance. The ordinance directs automobiles to remain four feet away from vulnerable travelers. In addition, a Complete Streets Resolution was passed after hosting a Complete Streets workshop open to the public.
The community group Brownsville in Motion meets once a month to discuss progress and vision. Members include policy makers, city staff, professors, and students. A planning grant from the National Park Service to connect the three battlefields in Brownsville is nearly complete, and community meetings are being held to gather input as design for a new one-mile trail funded by a Texas Parks and Wildlife grant is underway.
Plans are complete and grants have been submitted for the bank of the first resaca to be restored. The restored resaca will not only support an enriched ecosystem, but the bank will also provide a trail/boardwalk and reflective greenspace with a kayak dock. This first resaca runs alongside the historically recognized City Cemetery where veterans from every American war since the American Revolution, together with many of the city's and region's founding fathers, rest. Planners are making sure to intertwine the city's history with active public spaces.
What's next? A Master Bicycle Pedestrian Plan is about to begin and the inaugural position of Bicycle Pedestrian Coordinator is open. Build a Better Block projects are up and running each month, complete with bicycle lanes and pedestrian corridors, and the first Ciclovia ....CicloBia (B for Brownsville)..... is going to be held November 4, 2012!
Momentum is building in Brownsville and as I look back over the past few years it is clear that science, research, planning, parks, health, and the environment have developed not just an acquaintance but a meaningful relationship that is working together to build the road to a vibrant, prosperous, and healthy community that is pedestrian, bicycle, and kayak friendly!