Portland city showing symptoms of healthy design



Finally, something to be proud of.

City showing symptoms of healthy design



Sara Cormier of Sebago buys garlic seedlings and shallots Wednesday at the Farmers Market in Portland's Monument Square. Features such as the market contribute to the city's reputation for being a healthy place to live.

Farmers markets, like this one in Portland's Monument Square, give city residents home-grown alternatives in shopping. Lily Morris, above, shops for vegetable seedlings after a bike ride.


Jack Heary left, and Sam Yehdego, both of Portland, take part in a basketball tournament at the Reiche School on Saturday, as part of the West End Healthy Community Day activities.

Sarah Cormier had a yen for organic garlic and shallots freshly picked from the farm. So without hesitation, she headed straight to the heart of downtown Portland.

Just a couple blocks away from her high-rise office building is the weekly farmer's market at Monument Square. Professionals bike or stroll down the city's wide sidewalks to select produce and flowers on their lunch break.

"It's a small enough town where you don't have to drive everywhere," said Cormier, a retirement plan analyst.

That an open market is so accessible within Maine's largest city is one of the reasons Portland is named a top place to live by magazines like Vegetarian Times and Outside. A network of trails and parks also helps put Portland among the ranks of famously-fit Denver, Colo. and San Francisco.

Portland's success is particularly striking when considering where it is located. Maine has obesity and chronic disease rates that hover around the national average and are the worst in New England. About a third of Maine's kindergartners are overweight or at risk of being overweight.

Portland, in comparison, tied with Burlington, Vt., for the lowest rate of overweight adults in the country, according to a 2002 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That Portland may hold some lessons for the rest of the state is apparent to groups trying to improve Mainers' health.

"Well-designed cities and neighborhoods, and good health go hand in hand," said Alan Caron, president of GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit group that studies local growth issues.

Observers say Portland, more than anywhere else in the state, attracts professionals who want easy access to outdoor attractions but want to live in an urban setting.

Brent Howard, director of personal training at Bally Total Fitness, said he has no shortage of motivated clients, at least a third of whom are "people who came (to Portland) for the job and had inherited the lifestyle from somewhere else."

Howard said that exercise is strongly encouraged by employers who help pay for workers' gym memberships. Meanwhile, outdoor events such as road races are always well-promoted and attended, he said.

Helping to motivate people to exercise are amenities such as waterfront trails along Back Cove, the Eastern Promenade and the Western Promenade. Ocean scenes create points of interest for people who would be less apt to walk outside.

During the summer "it's a great place for people to get away from the heat and just be drawn to the water," said Roger Berle, president of the Portland Trails. "You can get to these trails from wherever you live in Portland."

Smaller cities are taking similar steps. For more than a decade, Lewiston has been trying to promote paths for walking and biking along the water and enhance its park system, said City Planner Gil Arsenault.

"We're seeing more people at lunchtime walking, which is somewhat new," Arsenault said.

This week marked the opening of a new park along the Androscoggin River called Gas Light Park. An economic renaissance - thanks in large part to low interest rates and the growing demand for housing - has allowed the city to reinvest in public improvements, Arsenault said.

Caron of GrowSmart Maine said more people are migrating to cities such as Portland and Lewiston because they want to have a sense of community and be able to walk to their grocery stores and schools.

"We're building a lot of places around that don't even have sidewalks . . . and that is not where the marketplace is headed," Caron said.

Because of its size, Portland benefits from a concentration of social service agencies that promote wellness. Saturday marked West End Healthy Community Day, an event organized by the neighborhood and the city and featuring salsa dance lessons and a lacrosse clinic.

Its sponsor, Portland West, said the event was inspired by an assessment made by Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mills had said the state and nation are facing an "obesity epidemic" because Americans are eating more, making poorer nutritional choices and are less physically active than earlier generations.

Portland's public health department works with the different agencies to coordinate services ranging from health education to health care for the homeless. Bangor is the only other city in Maine that has a formal public health department, said Lynne Rothney-Kozlak, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Maine Center for Public Health.

"That's a real landmark and something the state is looking to replicate across Maine," Rothney-Kozlak said.

Portland certainly has all the predictors of a healthy city, said Morgan Downey, executive director of the American Obesity Association. But Downey said it would be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons behind Portland's success.

Downey noted that a few years ago Colorado and other western states were lauded for healthful living. There was speculation that residents in these states were a self-selecting group who had sought out places flush with athletic opportunities such as skiing.

Downey said that theory was somewhat upended when the rate of obesity in these states started to catch up with the rest of the country.

"There's just a lot of questions as to what's behind the geographic variation," Downey said.

Just in moving from Portland to Sebago to raise her family, though, Cormier has noticed a change in her health regimen.

Cormier, 27, used to walk as much as she could in her Back Cove neighborhood, and biked to buy groceries.

In her new town, she said there is just a mini-mart that offers a limited selection of fresh produce. Her new home has more acreage, but she finds she walks a lot less.

"We have a very small section of sidewalk," she said.

Staff Writer Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:


Reader Comments
What prevents you from having a healthier lifestyle?

Jun 4, 2006 10:50 AM
Less walkable suburban neighborhoods. Fomerly intergrated neighborhood are becoming sliced in half by formerly residential street becoming commuter thorough fares and being widened to accomodate the car instead of other means of transportation-- Bikes pedestrians, strollers, wheel chairs.
Road Widenings such as at Morrills Ccorner, Allen Corner, Forest Ave , Washington Ave , Allen Ave. accomodate the car at the expense of other modes of transportation. Needed services become cut off from neighborhoods. Sidewalks and shoulders that could accomomdate other modes of transporation such as bikes and pedestrians become much narrower or nonexistant to accomodate the car. Any other mode of getting atound,except the car, becomes unsafe. There are No safe of leagl bike lanes in the area now. 5feet is the requiremant shoulder are 3 feet it that. There are NO safe sidewalks. they are too narrow and too close to the whizing traffic. Pedestrian cannot count on drivers yeielding to pedestrians at right turn on red.It becomes increasingly difficult for pedestrians to safely cross busy multi lane higheways that used to be residential streets and easily crossable. Sidewalks are impassible for 8 months of the years as the sidewalk becomes the snow bank. And when they are cleared they are slipery, narrower still and way too close to the elevated curb and whizzing traffic. Pedestrian walk lights often don't work or are actively disconnected because that pedeatrain walk phase interferes with the "flow of traffic"--- meaning the car.
When I was a Child growing up in Portland, I could easily and independently get around Portland. My bike was a permanent other appendage. I could easily and safely manuever Brighton Ave, Woodfords Corner, Stevens Ave Forest ave. I easily and safely walked to and from school EVERY day. And walked back and forth from school for lunch EVERYDAY. and I was skinney and so were all of my friends!!!We never consider asking our parents for a ride even in the most inclement whether and they rarely thought to offer to drive us. An over sized child was rare( and so was McDonald's.
If a parent let their child ride a bike or even walk those busy roadways today they would be accused of neglect or endangering the safety of a child.
I would never consider it safe walking Morrill's Corner or Allen's Corner or Woodford's Corner Or crossing any of or major streets on foot or bike NOW. AND yet we keep widening to accomodate the car WITH NO CONSIDERATION FOR BIKES OR PEDESTRIANS. Bike lanes and sidewalks keep getting narrower and closer to the traffic. Both sidewalks and shoudlers (aka bike lanes) are impassible 8 months of the year.
It rare for any Riverton, Longfellow or Lyseth school kid to walk to school. It's simply unsafe to do so. They take the bus or parents pick them up in their cars. Suburban Portland is significantly less walkable. Our sunburban neighbirhoods are becoming isolated by widened thorough fares and cut off form other neighbirhoods and services to accommodat the car and commuters. Walk to service? I don't THINK so!!

Stephanie of Standish, ME
Jun 4, 2006 9:23 AM
I have two bad feet but I love to walk. Walking around my area is very difficult b/c of the uneven pavement causes my feet more discomfort. At least when I am in Portland it is easier for me to walk on its flat walking surfaces. Not being able to walk makes it more challenging for me to stay active, as I think of walking as the main source of my ability to stay active and loose weight.

LL of Buxton, ME
Jun 4, 2006 8:34 AM
Cormier states in in the last sentence of this piece...only having a small section of sidewalk. It is extremely difficult to find safe places to walk or ride bikes in rural areas. There are no sidewalks in some places. Also, when riding a bike, you need to deal with the horrible roads we have in this State (potholes, cracks, eroding edges, etc) and hope that vehicles don't run you off the road.


OVERWEIGHT: Body mass index - weight in relation to height - of 25 to 29.9. Includes nearly 38 percent of Maine adults.

OBESE: BMI of 30 or more. Includes more than 23 percent of Maine adults.

INACTIVE: Fail to exercise at least 30 minutes a day - or exercise vigorously at least 20 minutes a day - at least five days a week. Includes nearly 47 percent of Maine adults.


PORTLAND IS TIED with Burlington, Vt., for the lowest rate of overweight adults in the country.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention