A Step toward a Healthier Tomorrow

By David Richards posted 10-04-2017 08:58

The frequently used idiom, “A walk in the park,” once referred to the ease of a common task. Today, however, a walk either to a park, to a store or to a school, is no longer as simple nor recurrent as it once was. Because of physical challenges like inadequate sidewalks, urban sprawl and car-centric suburban planning, many communities have become unsafe and discouraging for pedestrians to walk. To add, these barriers have begun to change American walking culture. 

The National Physical Activity Plan Alliance released its first national assessment of walking and walkability in the United States a few weeks ago, and found troubling results. The assessment gives the US nationally an F score, concluding that the US “could do better, must do better.” For two particular categories: biking and walking projects, and children and youth walking behavior, the results highlighted a grave lack of attention to community walkability. An alarming less than 30 percent of states meet the minimum standard of per state resident funding for such infrastructure. Additionally, less than 30 percent of children walk to and from school on a regular basis.

As walking culture fades, American car culture has become the new norm. The National Household Travel Survey found in its 2009 Report that trips and miles traveled per day increased from 2.32 trips and 20.64 miles in 1969 to 3.02 and 28.97 in 2009. Moreover, the average person trip length in miles to a school increased from 4.9 miles in 1983 to 6.3 in 2009, showing that more school-aged children are living further away from their education.

This shift in culture, along with other external factors, has paved the road for two serious public health concerns: motor vehicle collisions and childhood obesity. Unintentional injuries are among the leading cause of death in children ages 3 to 14; car accidents are one of the primary causes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that obesity affects 12.7 million children and adolescents, putting those in greater risk of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic diseases like diabetes.

With all that said, there is good news ahead. Many states, cities and counties are dedicating their resources to encourage walkable communities and physical activity. Some of those leaders are participating in this very challenge including participants from Allentown, Chester County, Perris, Spartanburg County, Thurston County, Wyandotte County and more.

Dieruff High School students in Allentown, Pennsylvania click in when walking to school.

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, the community is adopting a unique “click to walk” technology that tracks physical activity. The technology scans a user’s keytab to record when the community member goes out for a walk. So far, more than 50,000 clicks have been logged; each walk represents a walk of approximately one mile. Students from the Dieruff High School walking club “click in” at a chance to win cool prizes. Captain Christina Haddad says, “The new clicking machines give us extra motivation to do more laps.” The goal is one million clicks!

Fifth-grade students at Brandywine Wallace Elementary School in Downingtown join school principal Dr. Linda Leib and Phys Ed teacher Mark Young to launch Chester County Walks Day.

Chester County’s WalkWorks ChesCO! Program in Pennsylvania is using community engagement and education to get children, adolescents and adults out of the house to walk a minimum of one mile. With participation from schools and municipalities, the county hosted its first Chester County Walks Day on September 23. One of the participating schools, Brandywine Wallace Elementary School, contributed more than 540 students, which at 2,250 steps per mile, equates to more than 1.2 million steps. The event was one small step for man, one giant leap for public health awareness.

Students from Avalon Elementary School in Perris, California walk to school on Walk to School Day.

The City of Perris in California launched its e3p3 Live Well Perris Project with the aim to encourage greater physical activity and healthy eating habits in schools and community centers. The City has partnered with 13 schools to not only develop school gardens for physical activity, but also to promote STEM topics including biology and horticulture. Perris used last year's International Walk to School Day to roll out its Rethink Your Drink Program that raises awareness on the importance of limiting the consumption of sugary beverages. As the work continues, you can hear the city shout, "Inspiring healthy communities one crop at a time, because health matters!"

Students participate in Walk at School Day in Spartanburg County, South Carolina last year.

Community-based and school-based efforts and engagement have been the formula for success in Spartanburg County in South Carolina. Their project to reduce obesity through healthy eating and physical activity has so far reached nine schools, six municipalities, nine businesses, the South Carolina Hospital Association and several nonprofits. Principal Bobby Rollins of Arcadia Elementary School leads by example: “For me, I started slowly. As principal of an elementary school, I started with a stroll around the wonderful school that I am so grateful to be a part. It moved to strolls around my neighborhood along with my strolls at school. I walk now daily appreciating the great gifts of life that have been given to me. Life is precious. Life is good.”

Thurston_NisquallyWalk2SchoolDR.jpgStudents from Nisqually Middle School in Thurston County, Washington walk along a neighborhood path.

In the Pacific Northwest, community members are creating trails and wayfinding signs to improve on a low walk score. In Thurston County, Washington, the project is using GIS mapping to design outlets that connect urban and rural bicycle and pedestrian pathways. Thurston County Board of Health Chair, Bud Blake emphasizes the commitment to walking: “We value the opportunity that a walkable community provides for residents to be more active and healthy. We want our neighborhoods, streets, and children to be safe and healthy. That’s why we support Safe Routes to School projects and recognize Walk to School Day in our county.” One of the lessons learned so far is that the built environment takes long-term relationships, scope and persistence. 

Wyndotte_MattDR.jpgNew park signs in Wyandotte County, Kansas encourage community members to live a healthier lifestyle. 

Lastly, in Wyandotte County, advocates and partners from all different types of organizations have come together to address public health concerns and poor infrastructure through cross-sectoral collaboration. The county’s Safe Routes to Parks Program makes it safer and easier for the community to enjoy existing parks and green space. Community members have made parks safer through park cleanups, and redesigned signage and maps. Wyandotte County representative Matt Kleinmann stresses the need to engage with “residents you intend to serve from the beginning and throughout the entire process.” Read Matt’s Active Living Trails discussion post for more information.

In light of International Walk to School Day, October 4, let’s make all of our communities more walk- and bike-friendly to improve public health and wellbeing. For more information on walkable communities, please click on the embedded links and the resources below.

Know your city and county’s Walk Score.

Read Slate’s America’s Pedestrian Problem, an in-depth four-part series by Author Tom Vanderbilt.