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Our Bodies Are Made for Walking

Our Bodies Are Made for Walking

Huge health benefits heighten the need to make sure all Americans live in walkable communities. 

walking
Photo by Johnny Silvercloud

Few things in life relieve stress, instill creativity and boost health and more than taking a stroll.

“Walking is a man’s best medicine,” Hippocrates declared in the 4th Century BCE.  “To solve a problem, walk around,” St. Jerome advised during Roman times.“When we walk, we come home to ourselves,” observes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

This ancient wisdom is now backed up by modern science. A flurry of recent medical studies document the physical and mental health effects of walking as little as 30 minutes a day.

“The human body is designed to walk. Humans walk better than any other species on earth,” explained George Halvorson — former CEO of the  healthcare network Kaiser Permanente — at the 2017 National Walking Summit in St. Paul.The three-day events was organized by America Walks — a non-profit group encompassing more than 800 state and local organizations.

“We get less disease when we walk.We recover from disease sooner when we walk,” he said, noting half of all US healthcare costs stem from chronic diseases, which walking helps prevent and treat.“We can save Medicare when we walk.”

The Summit held September 13th-15th — which attracted more than 600 community leaders, health professionals, planners and public officials from 45 states — celebrated the growing public awareness of walking’s many benefits. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged Americans to walk more in a Call to Action in 2015, and the National Association of Realtors reports that “places to take walks” are the number one quality home buyers look for in a neighborhood. Recent research also links walkable places to economic opportunities, social equity, stronger communities and a cleaner environment.

Is Everybody Welcome to Walk?

But Summit goers were reminded there’s a long way to go before walking is safe and convenient for all Americans — a point highlighted at the opening reception by St. Paul deputy mayor Kristin Beckmann, who announced that a 7-year-old girl and a 91-year-old man had been struck down by hit-and-run drivers in the previous 24 hours. The girl suffered a broken leg and the man a concussion in a city ranked relatively high for walkability, according to Walkscore.  

Pedestrian death and injuries are rising across the country at an alarming rate, as part of an overall spike in traffic crashes, noted many speakers at the conference.  Speeding and drunk driving (which frequently involves speeding) are the chief culprits. The influential National Transportation Safety Board recently targeted speeding as an overlooked and deadly problem in America.

Younger and older Americans are not the only ones at risk.The summit focused particular attention on challenges people on foot face in racially and economically disadvantaged communities, as well as rural areas.

“African-Americans are more likely to not live near good places to walk and bike, and more likely to be hit by a car or stopped by police while walking,” noted Rutgers University transportation researcher Charles Brown.

Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, pointed out that people of color often are left out of walkability plans.“We’ve been walking for a long time — to school, to work. But one no seems to think about making our places more walkable until other kinds of people start moving in.”

Unwelcoming streets that deter walkers can become impassable roadblocks to the 54 million Americans who live with disabilities. “I walk when I drive my wheelchair,” said Maryland activist Juliette Rizzio. “So I proudly stand with you to promote inclusion. Walkability. Rollability. Possibility!”

Tyler Norris, CEO of the Well Being Trust, remembered civil rights activist Shavon Arline-Bradley asking a pointed question at the first Walking Summit in 2013: “Is everybody welcome to walk?”

Charles Brown offered an answer at the closing session of this year’s Summit’s.“I see the support, the commitment here to equity,” which he described as an understanding that communities suffering historic disinvestment need help to catch up.“This is the beginning of a movement.”

The Path Forward

The first-ever report card on walking and walkable communities was announced at the Summit, underscoring the importance of the emerging walking movement.The United States as a whole gets a failing grade in the following subjects: 1) pedestrian safety; 2) pedestrian infrastructure; 3) walking opportunities for children; 4) business and non-profit sector policies; and 5) public transportation, which is a key factor in walkable communities. We earned a D for public policies promoting walking, and a C in walking opportunities for adults.

A collective gasp swept the audience as the grades appeared on a screen. Russell Pate — one of America’s leading experts on physical activity — provided some context. “We know these are better than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Millions of people met the standards and so did some communities.”Pate and colleagues at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health oversaw a committee of scholars from numerous fields to assess the state of walking today as part of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.

Rather than deflating Summit participants, this poor performance review fired them up to learn as much as possible from one another about how to improve walking in their hometowns. Here’s what’s happening across the country.

Fresno, California

At a packed workshop, Esther Postiglione of Cultiva La Salud shared tips about what worked to boost walking in Latinx communities around Fresno: Walk to School Days; walking clubs (Pasos a la Salud);  Open Streets events; and community workshops (providing childcare and food) so people can express what they want for their communities. 

“When some city officials told us that people in Southeast Fresno don’t want to walk. Our answer was: That’s not what we hear,” Postiglione recounted. “This shows why it’s important to meet people where they live, play and work.Not expect them to come to City Hall.”

South Dakota

The state’s most remote counties are particularly afflicted by conditions linked to inactivity such as diabetes and obesity. Ann Schwader of South Dakota State University Extension identified and trained “walk coaches” in four rural  communities, who organized local walking campaigns.Schwader will offer another “Everybody Walks! SD” training next February to bring additional communities on board. 

Boston

The city is designating “slow zones” where speeds are capped at 20 mph as part of its Vision Zero commitment to sharply reduce traffic deaths among walkers, bikers and drivers. Forty-seven neighborhoods across town applied to be part of the program, notes Wendy Landman, director of Walk Boston.“The surge of interest by the public to make their neighborhoods safer stunned the city.”

Valley Hi — Sacramento

This mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood suffered a 50 percent higher rate of emergency room visits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and asthma attacks than the Sacramento region as a whole, and 36 percent of its residents were obese. One reason was that walking was stymied by unsafe traffic conditions and crime at the local park. Neighbors, churches and institutions — organized by the Health Education Council — worked to reclaim the park by adding a crosswalk, stepping up law enforcement, increasing recreation activities and launching a weekly walking group, Walk With Friends.Use of the park rose by 274 percent — and the Walk With Friends idea has been picked up in three other parks around Sacramento. 

Decorah, Iowa

Pedestrians are plentiful on sidewalks and trails in this town of 8000 near the Minnesota border until the snow flies and the Upper Iowa River freezes.To keep folks moving December to February, local groups sponsor the Beat the Blues Winter Marathon encouraging everyone to walk, cross-country ski, snowshoe or bike 26.2 miles.“You can take two weeks or two months. You can do two, three or more marathons over the winter,” explained April Bril, one of the organizers.  

Rondo — St. Paul

A freeway tore through the heart of St. Paul’s African-American community in the 1960s, destroying 687 homes and more than 100 businesses even though an alternative route one mile away would have followed a largely vacant rail corridor.“All my friends just went away,” remembers Marvin Scroggins, who grew up in the once bustling Rondo neighborhood.

Many Rondo residents now propose to heal some of the lingering wounds by constructing a half-mile long land bridge over the freeway, creating new space for parks, housing and businesses which can reconnect the community.Local foundations and the state department of transportation are showing interest in the project.“It’s more than a bridge,” explains Darius Gray of the Friendly Streets Initiative, noting that land bridges have been built in Duluth, Minnesota, as well as Dallas, Seattle and Columbus. 

Jay Walljasper — author of  The Great Neighborhood Book — speaks and consults about creating strong, sustainable, equitable, enjoyable communities. JayWalljasper.com


Next Steps for the Walking Movement

Both daunted by the challenge and roused by possibility of making walking as way of life for millions more Americans, many Summit participants pitched in to help America Walks identify 10 priority actions for the walking movement, which was circulated after the event:

Vision Zero Policies, including speed reduction trategic communications to increase demand for walkable places

• Focus resources on underserved populations

• Elevate pedestrian rights in emerging technologies (e.g. automated vehicles)

• Develop metrics to advance walkability

• Document and broadcast best practices and success stories

• Identify and bridge policies from local to federal

• Build state and local capacity and advocacy networks

• Create and strengthen influential partnerships (e.g. insurers, housing)

• Secure public and private investment in walkable environments

How to Turn Neighborhoods Into Hubs of Resilience

 PUSH
Photo courtesy of PUSH Buffalo

Think of it as a silver lining to the gathering dark clouds. We live in an era of extraordinary disruption, from the serial crises of a changing climate to the wrenching shifts of a globalized economy. But in that disruption lies the potential for positive transformation.

Addressing climate change requires adapting to the impacts that are already here—heat waves, droughts, superstorms and more—while preventing and mitigating future impacts. Taking these challenges seriously calls for radical changes in the way we live. It calls us to zero out our carbon emissions, and to rethink the systems that shape our lives, including the economy, food and power. It calls us to fundamentally transition from a world of domination and extraction to a world of regeneration, resilience, and interdependence.

It’s a tall order, no doubt, but that transition is already underway. In our work with movement builders on the front lines of the transition, we’ve identified two key guideposts—connectedness and equity—that point us toward the world we want.

Connectedness is the recognition that our well-being is inextricably tied to that of other people and the planet itself. It means there are no throwaway people, no throwaway places, no throwaway anything. In fact, there’s no “away”; there’s just here. In practice, connectedness is about lifting up the voices of the marginalized, and it means regenerating forgotten places, from industrial brownfields to hollowed-out rural towns and Rust Belt cities. The second guidepost, equity, is about recognizing and repairing the harm generated by situations of extreme power imbalance. Equity is about building power from the bottom up.

When communities are fully engaged in problem-solving, they come up with holistic solutions that address complex, interlocking challenges. Here are three.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, the waterfront neighborhood of Sunset Park was hit hard. Power lines toppled and businesses were shuttered. The neighborhood’s industrial district flooded, washing toxic residue into nearby residential areas.

But as the people of Sunset Park worked together to rebuild, a hopeful possibility emerged. What if the neighborhood rebuilt in ways that made the local economy more resilient and equitable, while limiting the impact of climate change? That’s the vision of UPROSE, a grassroots environmental justice group that took root in Sunset Park 50 years ago.

“Superstorm Sandy was a real wakeup call for our community,” says UPROSE director Elizabeth Yeampierre. “Climate change is here now, and waterfront communities like ours are extremely vulnerable.” The neighborhood’s low-income, immigrant residents were especially at risk, so in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, they turned to UPROSE for a community organizing effort to prepare for a wetter, more uncertain future.

The plan they came up with builds climate resilience while protecting the environment, health, and—crucially—jobs.

The point is not simply to rebuild what was there before; UPROSE members don’t want more jobs in the same dirty industries that had polluted the neighborhood for decades. “We have a lot of businesses on the waterfront, and we want to keep them here because people need places to work,” Yeampierre says. “But we want safe places to work.” To that end, UPROSE has joined forces with labor unions, the Center for Working Families, and business owners to transform Sunset Park’s industrial space into a manufacturing hub that produces environmentally friendly building and construction materials, powered by renewable energy. And they are encouraging these industries to hire locally.

It’s a plan that addresses many problems at once. In a city with skyrocketing inequality and rampant gentrification, it could help preserve the blue-collar jobs that once anchored the middle class. At the same time, it could reduce toxic hazards and make Sunset Park a safer, healthier place to live. And it could reduce the carbon emissions that are driving that change.

The process of developing the plan was as transformational as the plan itself. UPROSE consults with residents on the future they want, then arms them with the tools they need to make that vision a reality. Some residents take on the role of block captains and gather input and educate their neighbors on city planning processes. Through partnerships with researchers, residents conduct participatory action research on issues of concern. It’s a deeply democratic, holistic approach that builds local power and increases community control over resources—key elements of community resilience.

Buffalo, New York

Left behind by the globalized economy, Buffalo has lost more than half its population since 1950. By 2005, when the community group People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo was founded, residents of the West Side neighborhood were struggling with unemployment, rampant blight, and high energy costs.

At that time, there were an estimated 23,000 vacant homes in Buffalo. PUSH took on a state housing agency that was using vacant buildings to speculate on Wall Street, and got the buildings turned over to the community—with funding to fix them up.

Next, PUSH brought together hundreds of community residents to craft a plan for a large, blighted area. The result is a 25-square-block Green Development Zone(GDZ), which is now a model of energy-efficient, affordable housing. PUSH and its nonprofit development company rehabilitate homes in the GDZ, installing efficiency upgrades, like insulation and geothermal heating, that dramatically lower residents’ utility bills. The organization won a New York state grant to build 46 new homes, including a net zero house, which produces as much energy as it consumes.

The GDZ doubles as a jobs program. Through its construction projects, PUSH has cultivated a growing network of contractors who are committed to hiring locally. And PUSH successfully advocated for New York’s Green Jobs-Green New York program, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing energy upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.

Across the West Side, PUSH has transformed the urban landscape. In partnership with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Massachusetts Avenue Project, PUSH has turned trash-strewn, vacant lots into state-of-the-art rain gardens, small urban farms, and aquaponics greenhouses. These urban oases bolster food security, while providing much-needed green space.

Richmond, California

A predominantly low-income community of color is challenging the oil giant that has long dominated their city.

In Richmond, the 3,000-acre Chevron refinery looms over the city with towering smokestacks and tangled pipes going in every direction. The largest of its kind in California, the Chevron refinery showers Richmond with unpronounceable toxic chemicals and periodic fiery explosions that put residents at risk. As a major source of jobs and tax revenue, Chevron has long held outsized influence on the city’s politics. But, fed up with their toxic neighbor, residents are working to counterbalance the company’s political muscle.

The first step was to activate community power. A coalition of local nonprofits including the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment(ACCE), the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and Faith-Works brought residents together to devise solutions to community problems.

The coalition organized forums and rallies, held regular learning institutes for decision-makers, and encouraged public participation at planning commission meetings. In this way, residents reshaped their city’s General Plan to make Richmond less reliant on Chevron. The new General Plan emphasizes green industries, anti-displacement policies, and better mass transit systems. Now, the coalition is at work translating the plan into projects, programs, and laws.

At the same time, the Our Power campaign in Richmond is working to build community control over essential resources, such as food, land, water, and energy. Our Power partners with Cooperation Richmond, a local co-op incubator and loan fund that helps low-income residents create their own cooperatively owned businesses. The group holds the annual Our Power Festival, which brings together residents, small businesses, and the public sector to envision a transition to local energy management.

Despite this groundswell of community organizing, Chevron continued to hold sway on the City Council. So the organizers switched to electoral tactics to supporting progressive candidates who would stand up to the oil giant. And it worked. In 2014, despite millions of dollars invested in the election by Chevron, residents voted in candidates aligned with community values and renewable energy.

“Winning political power, especially in this political moment, is critical for communities at the intersection of poverty and pollution,” says APEN Action executive director Miya Yoshitani. “If we are going to win back our democracy from the hands of corporations, and win the powerful vision we have for living local economies, we need to invest in organizing the power of the people and the polls in all our neighborhoods.”


Taj James and Rosa González wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Taj James is the founder, executive director, and a board member of Movement Strategy Center, a national nonprofit that promotes movement-building strategies and supports organizations to work more collaboratively and sustainably.

Rosa is the center’s director of applied practice and leads the Community Climate Solutions program to advance transformative resilience strategies that accelerate the emerging transition to a regenerative and interconnected world.