Imagine living in one of America's great walkable communities. The day begins with a stroll — saying hello to neighbors, noticing blooming gardens and enticing shop windows, maybe stopping for a treat on the way to work. Weekends are even better. Walking leads to the coffee shop, park, shopping, a friend's home, gym or house of worship.
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Any community can become more walkable if people are willing to get off the couch to make a difference.
The following examples, from America’s Walking Renaissance: How Cities, Suburbs & Towns are Getting Back on Their Feet — a free downloadable book by the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks — explains how communities nationwide are getting feet onto the streets.
- In Albert Lea, Minnesota, and Batesville, Arkansas, improvements to boost walking around town are paying off in new residents, businesses and hope for the future (pages 65 and 78).
- In Arlington, Virginia, an innovative plan to transform neighborhoods into foot-friendly villages made it "America's Most Walkable Suburb" (page 49).
- In Birmingham, Alabama, a growing network of walking trails helps address problems arising from decades of economic decline, racial inequity and declining public health (page 70).
- In Baldwin Park, a Los Angeles suburb, high levels of childhood obesity are dropping as the result of a community-wide effort to make walking more safe and comfortable (page 75).
- In Northeast Iowa, small town kids are excited about walking to and at school (page 57).
- In Phoenix, programs to encourage walking are part of a push to become America's healthiest city (page 53).
- In San Francisco (and other cities), neighbors are teaming up with public leaders to end all traffic deaths on city streets (page 61).
- In St. Paul, a multicultural community torn apart by freeway construction seeks revival and healing through better pedestrian connections (page 42).
The Need to Walk
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found the number of people who regularly walk rose six percent between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available), a jump that translates into 20 million Americans stepping up.
But we still have a long ways to go. Only 48 percent of adults met the CDC's minimum daily recommendation for walking or other physical activity: 30 minutes a day five days a week (60 minutes daily for kids).
That's the magic number that cuts your chances of suffering from depression, dementia, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, anxiety, high blood pressure and other serious diseases by 40 percent or more. The American Heart Association lauds walking as the exercise people stick with the most over time: It's free, requires no special equipment and can be done anytime, usually right out one's front door.
In 2015, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy singled out walking as a powerful health solution in his landmark Call to Action to promote walking and walkable communities.
"Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives," Murthy declared. "The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation."
The rise in walking for recreation, transportation and exercise is also being fueled by new research showing it's good for us in many ways besides better health:
- Going out for a walk is one of the best ways to meet people and strengthen community connections, which is fun but also boosts our mental and physical health.
- Kids who walk to school do better in their classes, according to Mary Pat King, the National PTA's director of programs and partnerships. Walking improves students' concentration, mood, cognitive performance and creativity, explains pediatrician Richard Jackson, former environmental health director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
- Metropolitan regions with many walkable neighborhoods perform better economically than those with just a few, asays a report from the George Washington University School of Business.
- Reduced anger, increased self-control and a greater sense of well-being are other documented benefits of walking, according to 100 Reasons to Walk, issued by Walk with a Doc, an organization of physicians working in more than two dozen states.
The Right to Walk
"The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to it is a violation of fundamental human rights," declared Robert D. Bullard, Ph.D., father of the environmental justice movement, in a keynote speech at the National Walking Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2015. "All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community."
Yet it is a stark fact that children, older Americans, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities are injured or killed more frequently while walking (or rolling, in the case of people using wheelchairs or motorized carts).
- People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.
- African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.
- The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Too many people need to think twice before traveling by foot due to dangerous traffic, crumbling sidewalks, street crime, poor lighting, or the lack of stores and public places within walking distance. Poor conditions for walking among low-income households limit their access to jobs and education.
Photo by Nancy Paiva
One-third of all African Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.
"A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one," says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia.
The good news is that the right to walk is becoming a major issue, as advocates for social justice, public health, neighborhood revitalization and other causes push for policies to make walking safer and easier in communities all across America.