Rose Gowen is a woman with a purpose. After learning that one in three residents of her Brownsville, Texas, hometown is diabetic, the physician made it her mission to get the small city with a big obesity problem walking more, bicycling more and eating better food.
Sign-up! Livable Communities Newsletter
As a result, Gowen — who is an obstetrician/gynecologist and, since 2009, a Brownsville city commissioner — has been at the forefront of transforming the poor border city (population: 181,860) by developing a network of bike trails, and establishing regular farmers’ markets and a monthly “CycloBia” during which more than 10,000 people of all ages take to the streets on bicycles. A tireless advocate for smart growth, quality of life projects and public health, Gowen, was instrumental in Brownsville’s decision to become a member of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities this past January. The city's efforts have resulted in recognition this year by the National Civil League and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (See the boxes below.)
1. How have you and other Brownsville leaders been able to pursue the community to pursue a healthier lifestyle?
At the time, I was a private practitioner who did not regularly vote, so I can’t really say I was in the trenches with policy makers at all. But I got involved in an initiative at the University of Texas School of Public Health here in Brownsville to create a farmers market that would be accessible and affordable to people of all incomes and ages.
For that initiative I was usually the person who spoke to the city government about permits and that type of thing, so I learned a bit about how policy is made and how funds are allotted. That led me to become interested in getting involved in a political sense because I realized that if designing and opening a farmers market, which should be a simple, very good thing for the community, was so hard and had so much red tape around it, that I needed to have a stronger voice. Otherwise, the voice of wellness was not going to be heard.
Back then the relationship between wellness or age-friendly communities and the economy was not not understood by policy makers. Translating the health data into its economic implications is what began to get folks listening.
2. Do you remember there being a light bulb moment when you were talking to people and you realized they had got it, at last?
Well, I remember very clearly that as we went from initiative to initiative — we started with farmers’ markets, then we went on to the Challenge, which is a five-month springtime event for engaging the community in healthy living, and then the CycloBia — there were fewer and fewer people who stood up and said “No.”
The rewarding a-ha moment was when that scale tipped and instead of having to make a case and argue for a particular initiative, we received a more enthusiastic welcome. “Oh, you have another initiative. OK, what’s it about? How can we get involved?”
We hope and expect to see economic vibrancy and prosperity grow as we create the changes that make the community more livable. We’re already seeing that many of our downtown restaurateurs and retail owners love when we host these events because they see increased revenue during those times. We’ve had several restaurateurs say they’ve been able to pay two months of taxes after only one event that brought people in on foot or by bike.
3. What’s age-friendly about Brownsville — and what isn’t?
Brownsville is a community that is very rich in its culture. The tapestry of Mexican and American cultures merging is vibrant, and families often take care of and house their older relatives. Brownsville is a very nurturing environment, and I think that’s at the very essence of being an age-friendly community.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years in integrating seamless transportation between mass transit and our Brownsville Metro system, our bike lanes and our sidewalks. We now have sidewalk ordinances for retail, commercial and neighborhood development, which was not the case a few years back. We have a master bike-and-hike plan so folks can get around the city without having to depend on cars. Since the master bike plan integrates or intersects with our B-metro routes, an older person in Brownsville doesn’t have to always drive a car, doesn’t have to afford a car, and can go from point A to point B across town in a comfortable, safe environment.
I do think we still need to work on our parks system and integrate our parks with the master bike-and-hike trail program. We still have neighborhoods that don’t have green space in them. We tend to have larger parks in different parts of the city but not the smaller, more intimate neighborhood parks that, perhaps, a grandparent or a senior citizen would be able to walk to in the afternoon. We need help in those areas. We also need to continue revitalizing our downtown space. There are many neighborhoods that are within walking distance of downtown, and the downtown itself needs help improving its walkability.