Communities that do not design their cities for walkability will lose the competition to recruit businesses, a younger workforce and empty-nest baby boomers, said national trails expert Mark Fenton.

Fenton, the former host of “America’s Walking” on PBS, will be in Fort Smith and Van Buren on April 19 for a free public workshop and “walkabout” that gauges an area’s walkability.

“There is a compelling evidence-based argument for walkable cities and I will spell that out in my visit to Fort Smith and Van Buren,” Fenton said by phone from his home in Massachussets. "I'll try and paint a prescription of how communities can change things."

Better sidewalks, ramped curbs, and connectivity with trails offer a three-fold benefit for people through public health, prosperity through economics and the planet through environmental impact, Fenton said.

A looping system of trails around Fort Smith was estimated several years ago to cost between $9.5 million to $17 million, according to a committee tasked with revamping the city’s 10-year-old Trails & Greenways Master Plan. In May 2015, a proposal to boost trails construction in Fort Smith by setting aside a 5 percent portion of Fort Smith's longstanding 1 percent street tax was squashed by voters by a margin of about 1,300 people. It would've generated about $1 million in additional funds for trails.

The margins were 80 percent to 20 percent in favor of the street tax renewal (5,005-1,239) and 56 percent to 44 percent against the trail option (3,472-2,763), according to the Sebastian County Clerk’s Office. Opponents stated at the time that about $19 million already existed for trails from a 2012 tax allocation.

Meanwhile, developers at Chaffee Crossing on the east end of Fort Smith have used the opportunity to start fresh and turn old Fort Chaffee military land into planned neighborhoods with connectivity through multi-use trails.

Fenton said Macon, Ga., is an example of a city in the South that has embraced the idea of making communities more accessible by walking or biking. And Wichita, Kan., is an example of city in this region that has put a focus on trails and connectivity with a half-cent tax for roads and sidewalks.

As can be seen on his many YouTube videos and at his website, markfenton.com, the “walkabouts” are a way to take an assessment of an area and see what can be done to encourage walking and bicycling as an alternative to driving. Money spent on improvements that encourage walking will pay out in the long run by preventing disease.

Three big risks for health include smoking cigarettes, poor nutrition, and poor physical activity, Fenton noted. Walking about 30 minutes a day is recommended by physicians to decrease chances of heart disease, Fenton noted.

The Van Buren “walkabout” will start at 10:30 a.m. April 19 at the Crawford County Library, 1409 Main St.

The Fort Smith “walkabout” will start at 2 p.m. April 19 at the former bakery downtown next to Hanna Gas & Oil and the Fort Smith National Cemetery.

The visit is a service of both the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren and local private donors.

“To encourage economic growth, quality of life, and liveability, we want to look at ways we can improve community design to make Fort Smith attractive for recreation, business and residents,” Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders notes in a news release from Frontier Metropolitan Organization.

A 7:30 a.m. breakfast April 20 will also be held for community leaders at the King Opera House in downtown Van Buren to go over the walkability assessment with Fenton.

In addition to his job as a planner and international travels speaking on trails, Fenton lectures at Harvard Medical School's Institute of Lifestyle Medicine course, "Active Lives: Transforming Ourselves and Our Patients.” He has engineering degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and experience with communities across the nation.

Encouraging ways to grow communities in a way that allows for children to grow up active and healthy, and support mature residents to have safe transportation options are two of his main objectives.

Groups that have made Fenton’s visit possible include the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization, Blue and You Foundation, and Hanna Oil & Gas. Fenton will work with the Metropolitan Planning Organization partners “to provide various training and workshops, listen to participants and establish action steps for creating settings that are safe, inviting and convenient for pedestrians.”

For information about Mark Fenton’s visit, the workshops or Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization, call (479) 785-2651 or visit www.frontiermpo.org.