Surgeon General: Every Community Needs to Be Walkable

We must build strong partnerships between the public health and medical communities on one side and the planning and design worlds on the other to make sure this nationwide shift back to walking gets planned, designed, and built.
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At a press conference to launch a new campaign for walkable communities, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said only half of Americans get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes. Adults need 22 minutes of moderate activity each day, or about 150 minutes a week, at a minimum. But as mainstream health researchers and medical professionals are now realizing, half of the U.S. population may not be walking because they live in communities that actually physically prevent them from doing this. Over 30 percent of American communities can be considered unwalkable. And in these places, walking is not only a hassle -- given it requires people to actually drive or take a bus to where they can get out and walk around -- but it can also be dangerous. In 2013 alone, 4,700 pedestrians lost their lives due to collisions with cars, and since 2003, nearly 50,000 have.

Murthy explained that Americans have "lost the culture of physical activity." This has led to a health crisis. Indeed, according to the National Institute of Health, two-thirds of Americans are now considered overweight, with one-third considered obese. About 5 percent of the population is considered morbidly obese. But for Murthy, this cultural shift away from physical activity is directly connected with the growing dearth of walkable places. And it's particularly bad for seniors, people of color, and people with disabilities, who disproportionately live in unwalkable areas. "That's a health equity issue, too."

Furthermore, 7 out of 10 Americans die from preventable chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. He added, "it turns out the most powerful way we can turn the tide on chronic disease is something we have been doing for millennia: That is walking." He pointed to the public health department of a community in Indian River, Florida, that undertook an audit of the community's streets and then completely revamped them to become walkable, complete streets. "95 percent of residents now spend time walking outside."

And it's not just about walking, but also rolling. Murthy called for all communities to be fully wheelchair accessible. As the wheelchair-bound Maryland state official Juliette Rizzo explained, "50 percent of Americans with disabilities don't get enough exercise. And adults with disabilities are three times as likely to have chronic diseases." For Rizzo, there are not many places where she can go exercise, and these kinds of gyms are expensive. "But rocking and rolling are always affordable." Rizzo disabused people of the notion that people just sitting in their wheelchairs aren't exercising as well. As she navigates a path, she herself is moving and shifting her body, pumping her arms.

Others lent their support at the press conference: Tyler Norris with Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, said their doctors now "prescribe walking." He urged communities to leverage both public and private investments to create the infrastructure needed for walking and wheelchair rolling. Norris added that "walking is a right, not a privilege or luxury. All must be able to walk in their communities, and that means all."

Carlos Monje, assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the Highway Administration has created "more flexible" mobility standards that will enable local communities to better fund their sidewalk improvement projects. He said the U.S. Congress is still debating the massive surface transportation bill, with its important "transportation alternatives" programs, which is Congressional-speak for projects with sidewalks and bike lanes, and urged people to contact their representative to push for safer, more walkable streets.

And Kathy Smith, CEO of America Walks, said over 500 organizations across the country are doing important bottom-up work to make communities more walkable, often with annual budgets of less than $10,000. And some of these organizations encourage specific segments of the population to walk more. One example is GirlTrek, which builds support for walking as a healing process among African American women and girls. As GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Criglar stated at the event, "African American girls in particular face barriers to walking."

Murthy is following the lead of environmental health leader Dr. Richard Jackson, who has written many books and produced a PBS series to bring attention to the disconnect between public health goals and the built environment. It's just too bad that the organizers of this important event at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn't invite any representatives from the wide ranging fields involved in planning, designing, and implementing a safe, healthy transportation system. While we certainly applaud Surgeon General Murthy's new campaign, the press conference featured many doctors, even representatives from the council of shopping malls, but not a single representative from the urban planning, development, landscape architecture, and transportation engineering fields, which will create the solutions so critically needed.

We must build strong partnerships between the public health and medical communities on one side and the planning and design worlds on the other to make sure this nationwide shift back to walking gets planned, designed, and built.

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