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An Unhealthy Community Can't Be a Great Community

That's why St. Petersburg, Florida, has made fitness a public health priority

A group exercise class takes place in a St. Petersburg, Florida, park as part of the annual Healthy St. Pete festival

Photo courtesy City of St. Petersburg

The 12-week, 2017 Healthy St. Pete Fitness Challenge ended with a Fit City Celebration in North Straub Park. Among the five fitness categories participants could select: "Age-Defying Fitness" for people 60 and over.


When a health survey ranked Pinellas County — in which St. Petersburg, Florida, is the largest city — 33rd out of the state’s 67 counties, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin decided it was time to pull the city up by its bootstraps.

“We don’t do middle of the pack,” Tomalin said. “We lead!”

The pair launched Healthy St. Pete, a community engagement and empowerment initiative to improve the health outcomes of the city’s 260,000 residents. The initiative has four main components — Live Healthy, Eat Healthy, Shop Healthy and Play Healthy — and is designed to help people do each of those things by building productive partnerships with civic and nonprofit organizations, local businesses and public health authorities.

Healthy St. Pete’s Food Is Medicine program, for example, offers free classes in wellness, nutrition and healthy cooking, targeted mostly to people who live in food deserts, where it’s difficult or impossible to find affordable, good-quality fresh food. At the end of each class, participants receive a $10 voucher for use at the program’s on-site fresh-produce stand.

For people who can’t get to the city’s Saturday Morning Market, orders can be made online for pickup at one of several locations. A “mobile pantry” distributes nutritious foods to anyone who needs it, no prescreening or ID required.

Healthy St. Pete also pushed to make the city a friendlier place for bicyclists and pedestrians.

There’s been a dramatic surge in bicycle-friendly businesses, and the City Trails program makes it a lot easier to get around via three miles of nature trails and boardwalks through the 245-acre Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, a wilderness oasis on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

Also on the menu: free yoga classes, open-to-all swing dances, an annual 5K and one-mile fun walk, a host of health and wellness presentations, a bus that brings free health screenings to neighborhoods throughout the city, a citywide community fitness challenge, and programs about preventing chronic diseases.

The reason for making fitness a municipal mission is, as Kriseman sees it, very simple. “If we’re not a healthy city, if we’re not an active city,” he says, “we can’t truly be a great city.” 


Adapted from the "Support Health and Wellness" chapter of Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Ideas From America’s Local Leaders. Download or order your free copy.

Page published July 2018