Many things leap to mind when someone mentions walking: fitness, fun, fresh air, relaxation, friends and maybe your most comfortable pair of shoes. But a word that rarely arises is “power”.
That will begin to change after the 2017 National Walking Summit (held in St. Paul, Minnesota September 13-15), which is themed “Vital and Vibrant Communities—The Power of Walkability”.
Like earlier summits, this event brings together people of all backgrounds to strategize ways of making sure the advantages of walking can be shared by all, no matter what their income or where they live.
Walking advocates once focused primarily on physical health —spurred by mounting evidence that physical activity is key to preventing disease—but now are stepping up to promote social, economic and community health. Their ultimate goal is to transform towns and neighborhoods across America into better places for everyone to live.
“The power of walking is becoming more clear all the time,” declares Kate Kraft, a longtime walking activist. “Community connections, social equity, a sense of well-being, business opportunities, affordable housing, more choices for kids and older people, a cleaner environment—these are some of the benefits of walkable places.”
Walking Boosts Health & Happiness
Streams of medical studies now document the central role physical activity plays in fending off disease and disability. Chances of depression, dementia, colon cancer, heart disease, anxiety, diabetes and other conditions drop by at least 40 percent among people engaging in moderate exercise such as walking.
A landmark study issued last year found that sedentary habits are a bigger health threat than high blood pressure or cholesterol— about the only thing more dangerous than inactivity is smoking reported the New York Times. This followed on the heels of a Cambridge University study showing that a lack of exercise increased your risk of death twice as much as obesity.
All the scientific data persuaded former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy to issue a landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities in 2015, which has been compared to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking. “Walking helps people stay both physically and mentally healthy,” Murthy wrote, calling on us “to increase walking by working together to increase access to safe and convenient places to walk.”
Walking stands out among all other exercise because: 1) It is free; 2) It requires no special training or equipment; 3) It can be done almost anywhere at any time; and 4) It is already Americans’ #1 favorite physical activity. The US Department Transportation reports that Americans reported walking 14 percent more in 2012 than in 2002 (latest figures available).
Walking Advances Social Justice
“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared sociologist Robert A. Bullard, founder of the environmental justice movement, at the 2015 Walking Summit. “All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the case across America today. People walking in lower-income neighborhoods are twice as likely to be killed by traffic than those in more affluent areas. African-Americans on foot are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars than whites, while Latinos are 43 percent more likely.
“If you have walkable communities, kids will do better in school…seniors will be healthier,” said Ron Simms—a neighborhood activist from the African-American community of Seattle who later became Deputy US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, at the 2015 Summit.
Better walking conditions also help low-income families economically. Surprising new research from the George Washington School of Business shows “the most walkable urban metros are also the most socially equitable. The reason for this is that low transportation costs and better access to employment offset the higher costs of housing.”
This is backed up with Federal Highway Administration data finding that families living in auto dependent communities spent 57 percent of their income on housing and transportation, compared to 41 percent in walkable communities.
This refutes widespread rumors that making a street safe for walking is a luxury important only to well-off people. Actually, low-income residents benefit the most because they travel by foot the most, especially kids. “The fact is that we have twice as many low-income children [nationally] who are walking or biking to school than those in affluent neighborhoods, even lacking the infrastructure to protect the children,” reports Keith Benjamin, Transportation Director in Charleston, South Carolina.
Safe, convenient and comfortable places to walk are fundamental to the forgotten one-third of Americans who don’t drive— the young, the old, the disabled and those too poor to buy a car. These people live under a form of house arrest in many US communities, unable to do much of anything—buy groceries, see friends, go the doctor, engage in favorite activities—without begging someone to chauffeur them. Communities from San Francisco to Birmingham to rural Iowa are pulling together to eliminate the roadblocks that deter people of all ages, incomes and racial backgrounds from walking.
Walking Expands Economic Opportunities
People on the street mean business—literally. Neighborhood and downtown business districts thrive on foot traffic. West Palm Beach, Florida discovered this after making a major avenue more comfortable for pedestrians, and attracting $300 million in new business investment. Albert Lea, Minnesota—a blue-collar rural town of 18,000—found the same thing when a walk-friendly makeover of its Main Street drew 15 new businesses in two years, with $2-5 million more in investment planned.
Even companies not dependent on local customers are eager to locate in walkable districts—especially firms in the booming tech and creative fields, who realize the young talent they depend on to stay competitive want to work within walking distance of cafes, parks and cultural attractions.
Many other companies find that walkable locations pay off in lower health insurance premiums. Thomas Schmid of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to Volkswagen, which built a manufacturing plant in Chattanooga only after local officials agreed to extend a popular walking-biking trail to their door.
Walking Connects People & Strengthens Communities
Eighty five percent of Americans express the desire to live somewhere walkable, making it the #1 quality they want in a home, according to the National Association of Realtors’ Community & Transportation Preference Survey. This is even more true for Millennials, millions of whom will be looking to buy their first home over the next few years.
Former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin emphasizes that taking a stroll “is good for the social fabric of our communities”—creating new opportunities to connect with friends and neighbors, which is not only good for your soul but also your health. That’s why Benjamin added a walking path to the grounds of the health clinic she founded in rural Alabama.
Walking Protects Our Environment
Walking more is an important step you can take to avert climate disruption, air pollution, urban sprawl and other environmental threats. More than half the suggestions in 50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation, released last year by the Frontier Group research organization, involve walking.