Medical Mile (Little Rock, Arkansas)

Arkansas River Trl, Little Rock, AR, 72201, USA

What started this project: 

Little Rock, the capital of and largest city in Arkansas, has close ties and immense pride in its relationship to the natural resources. In 2000, the city convened a citizen group to craft a comprehensive vision for Little Rock. At the same time, Little Rock Parks and Recreation began the process of creating a new parks master plan. The linkage of the existing recreational system, coupled with the mission to “maximize the benefits of new facilities for all members of the community,” provided a framework for the master plan. A key development concept was “the three-trail loop concept,” now known as the Arkansas River Trail, a 17-mile proposed trail to connect the parks system’s existing network and highlight the city’s relationship to the Arkansas River. In 2003, a $1.9 million bond was issued to begin the Arkansas River Trail development. The same year, Arkansas became one of the first states to introduce and pass visionary and comprehensive legislation to address childhood obesity, a move born out of a couple of health-focused conferences the year before. Though the act was primarily focused on school interventions, community health promotion clearly emerged as a priority around the state. Recognizing the poor health conditions – in the late 1990s Arkansas ranked as the fifth highest state in the overall rate of preventable diseases – as well as the cultural and social factors involved with behaviors from over-eating to physical activity, a group of partners began to advocate for a public space that provided not only opportunities for healthy lifestyles, but also inspiration about these choices. This partnership led to the creation of the Arkansas River Trail’s centerpiece, now referred to as the Medical Mile, which is in Riverfront Park, adjacent to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and in Arkansas’ most prominent commercial and recreational district.

Goals: 

Though the park master planning effort sought to provide recreational access to residents and increasing tourism, it quickly became apparent that health and wellness were central to community quality of life. Moreover, not only were the serious and expensive health concerns facing the local community due to a lack of access to opportunities to exercise or access to healthy foods, but a significant lack of awareness also hindered any efforts to improve health outcomes. The Medical Mile is the unique health-centric gathering space, and it was meant to be a space for exploring how artistic visual and interpretive elements could be designed to “inspire, delight, and motivate people to make wellness-oriented lifestyle changes.” As once noted by Dr. Eleanor Kennedy of Heart Clinic Arkansas, the Medical Mile was “a way to give back to the community by offering citizens a safe and accessible place to exercise and by encouraging a more healthy lifestyle.” Project partners - including Heart Clinic Arkansas; the Little Rock Parks and Recreation; and the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program - rallied around the Medical Mile as an opportunity to highlight achievable, exciting, and relevant ways to combat chronic disease through lifestyle changes. Ultimately, the themes of exercise, smoking cessation‚ and better nutrition were identified as the highest priority by the Arkansas Department of Health.

Process: 

The trail development bond passed in mid- 2003, but a significant funding gap remained. Later that year, Heart Clinic Arkansas voted to raise $350,000 over two years to help the parks and recreation department fund the Medical Mile. The clinic, with additional support from major hospitals, the Arkansas Department of Health, and many individual physicians, ultimately reached a stretch fundraising goal of $2.1 million. To excite the public and meaningfully provide the stimulus that project partners hoped to achieve, artist Debra Moseley-Lord was engaged to design art for a 1,300-foot wall along the trail. Moseley-Lord had extensive experience with producing public art in Arkansas but also had expertise in visually exciting displays, gained through her work as an art director for a special events production company. As the artist describes, she chose to create art that was well spaced and simple, but visually compelling. Leading project partners away from installing elements that were more akin to advertisements for health-related services, she helped to design and create public artworks that integrate health reminders and health-supportive amenities (such as lights and water fountains). The Medical Mile not only features opportunities for physical activity and recreation – running, skating, walking‚ and cycling – but also offers education and inspiration about wellness through arts elements such as a three-dimensional mural wall and a “Body-Mind-Spirit” entry plaza. Each element is intended to inform and inspire visitors as they explore the Medical Mile path toward improved health.

Results: 

The Medical Mile is the “nation’s first outdoor linear health museum,” which uses arts and architecture to make clear the connection between lifestyle choices and disease. The visceral nature of this connection, created through the arts elements, helps to establish the Arkansas River Trail System as a tribute to outdoor recreation, as well as to wellness and vitality. As described by the National Trails Training Partnership, “over two million people from around the world visit the area each year. The Medical Mile gives a positive impression of a city dedicated to the health and wellness of its citizens.” Today, Pulaski County, where Little Rock is the county seat, is ranked 11th of the 75 counties in Arkansas – a significant increase from its 31st ranking in 2011. In 2012, almost 43 percent of adults achieved National Physical Activity standards, and this has continued to improve over time. Over a quarter of adults are also consuming recommended levels of fruit and vegetables. However, while childhood obesity has appeared to have plateaued, adult obesity rates in Arkansas have continued to rise. Though work remains, Little Rock’s improvements are notable and ongoing – and the Medical Mile provided an innovative way for healthcare providers to act in their own communities. The Medical Mile remains an important example of bringing health into places where people live, work, and play. The partnerships, creative financing, advocacy and education, and integration of arts and cultural expression are helping to maintain Little Rock’s “city in a park” vision. Recreational, cultural, and educational opportunities continue to be a strategy maintaining the quality of life within the city, with ongoing Arkansas River Trail expansion being a key component of this. The City recently applied for a grant to create a new ramp/entry point that will expand the user groups able to use the facility and make the experience more pleasant.