Walking in Memphis

How the built environment affects health: Q&A with Church Health’s Jenny Bartlett-Prescott

Oct. 18, 2018

“Just start walking.”

When doctors encourage people to start exercising, walking is often step one. It’s an activity most people can do, it’s easy and it’s free — but it’s not always that simple.

“You can’t tell someone to go and walk their neighborhood if there’s no sidewalk, or to walk around the park if there’s no park,” says Jenny Bartlett-Prescott, senior director of integrated health programs for Church Health in Memphis. As a nonprofit providing services to those with little or no access to health care, Church Health sees firsthand how the environment matters.

The built environment includes all of the physical parts of where we live and work: homes, buildings, streets, open spaces. According to the CDC, the built environment influences a person’s level of physical activity.

“There’s an increased awareness right now in Memphis of how the built environment impacts health,” she says.

“If people have access to green spaces, recreational opportunities and sidewalks that are safe and functional, it can change the way they live.”

Jenny Bartlett-Prescott

A matter of time

Access becomes even more crucial when you explore the obstacles many Memphians face in making exercise a priority.

“The biggest challenge for our patients is making the time to do recreational activities or exercise when they’re working several jobs,” says Bartlett-Prescott. “It’s a struggle, and then add to that the fact that many of their jobs are physically demanding. So you’re standing on your feet all day as a server at a restaurant, and you have to plan your day around the bus schedule because that’s your only means of transportation.

“At the end of the day you’re exhausted, and the last thing you want to think about is getting out and exercising.”

Simplifying change

Bartlett-Prescott says to make a difference in Memphis, the approach must be simple. If you want to inspire the community to change, you have to make change easy.

“We’re asking everyone to make changes: eat better, exercise more or even just be nicer,” says Bartlett-Prescott, laughing. “Whatever the outcome you’re looking for, psychologically it has to make sense for people. People already know they need to quit smoking, lose weight or take their diabetes medicine. For them to do these things, the pros have to outweigh the cons, and they need to have a deeper understanding of the benefits. We — the community, the providers, the city — need to make it easier for people to make those changes.”

Groups meet at Crosstown Concourse to walk several times a week

Improving the cycle

Memphis is already taking steps toward that goal as it relates to the built environment.

In the past few years, Memphis has started:

  • Designating bike lanes when they resurface or restripe a street
  • Establishing bike share stations around the city
  • Expanding the Greenline, a roughly 11-mile paved urban trail that connects Midtown to Cordova through Shelby Farms Park
  • Refurbishing parks and making green spaces available and accessible

Community partners are helping with that effort too, and community members are getting involved. This involvement is one of the reasons David Carnes Park in Whitehaven was selected as the state’s first BlueCross Healthy Place.

The promise of possibilities

For Memphian Casina Chambers, the idea brings with it a lot of promise. She already loves taking her kids to Shelby Farms, but it’s half an hour away from her home.

“They love it, but David Carnes Park is closer,” Chambers says. “Kids should have a place to get out and be active… and for the adults, we have a lot of people with diabetes in Memphis who this fitness area could help. These improvements to the park can be an opportunity.”

Being able to see the possibilities is something Chambers and Bartlett-Prescott have in common.

“Memphis is like any other city in America: figuring out how to address the challenges of diabetes or hypertension or obesity as chronic diseases,” she says. “What people are coming to understand is that the built environment plays a big part.

“Every step we take to make change easier is one that will ultimately make all our lives better.”

For more information on the BlueCross Healthy Place in Memphis, click the rendering below.

More stories from Shelby County

Click the graphic above to read about minority health in Memphis with Rafielle Freeman, director of quality improvement at BlueCross.

Click the image to read the health brief on Memphis & Shelby County.