Let’s Talk the Walk
“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.”
– Kahlil Gibran
For individuals, the health benefits are clear: Walking, or rolling for wheelchair users, raises the heart rate, elevates energy levels and improves mood. And some studies show that regular moderate exercise––like a brisk walk––is one of the best ways to prevent chronic health conditions. That’s good news for the more than half (53%) of Oregon adults who report walking for exercise.1
When our communities are walkable, the benefits accrue to more than just the individual walker. Creating walkable places is among the most promising strategies for addressing obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases that take a physical and financial toll on our state. No matter where you live in Oregon, living in a walkable community is something we should all expect and demand.
Prineville, Oregon stands out as a walkable place, said resident Bob Orlando. Before Bob relocated to Prineville, he needed to drive 30 minutes just to take a good long walk. Now, Prineville’s paved paths and groomed trails give him easy access to the physical activity he enjoys. What’s more, residents seem more connected to each other and to what’s going on in their community, Bob said, compared to other places he’s lived.
In Prineville, “if you want to get outside and do something, the opportunity is there,” he said.
Bob Orlando explains how his community of Prineville, Ore. makes it easier to take a walk.
Some Oregon communities share Prineville’s walkability, but others do not. Most of us live in places that were designed decades ago with cars in mind, not walking.
While city planning and transportation design are different today, many communities are still without walkable places. Depending on where you live or your income level, barriers exist that may keep you from getting enough regular physical activity—even when that activity is as seemingly simple as a walk.
For example, when the “WALK” signal at an intersection doesn’t last long enough, an older person who moves slowly doesn’t have time to safely make it to the other side. When sidewalks are uneven, broken or nonexistent, a short walk to the bus stop can be treacherous for a parent pushing a stroller or an older person using a walker.
For the health and vitality of all Oregon communities, it’s important to make the places where we live, work, learn and play more safe and enjoyable for walking.
What Makes a Community Walkable
Several factors help accomplish this goal, according to national walkability expert Mark Fenton.
These include having destinations that are useful and interesting, such as bus stops, schools, markets, community centers and libraries. It’s also helpful if there is a good network of sidewalks, trails and crossings to make travel efficient. A walker can quickly hit a dead end without these connections.
Other elements that make it easier and more likely for people to walk are inviting settings, such as streets with pleasing storefronts right up to the sidewalk, shade trees and other features. People are more likely to walk where they can move around safely and enjoy their surroundings.
Lastly, the areas must be safe for people of all ages and ability. This could mean signalized intersections that allow more time to cross, or streetlights that illuminate evening walks through a neighborhood park.
What if you’re a senior and you don’t drive? Just walking to the bus stop can be difficult and scary.
When all of these factors are present in a community, they fuel community vitality. When neighborhoods are walkable, they attract people. People walk to work or school, to run errands or just to exercise. With more feet on the street, we talk more and connect more often with neighbors. This makes neighborhoods more economically and socially vibrant, improves community health, and makes life better for everyone––mentally and physically.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to make your community more walkable, no matter where you live. Most importantly, you can ask for—and if necessary, demand—more safe places to walk. Walkable neighborhoods are not a privilege reserved for certain Oregonians. All of us should have the opportunity to walk safely and comfortably in our own communities.
Here are a few specific ways to get involved:
- Find out what’s happening in your community
Many communities in Oregon have begun to make their neighborhoods more walkable and to encourage people to walk more. In many cases, community groups are working with planners to put in place strategies that encourage walking. Contact your city or county transportation planning department to find out if any efforts are underway to improve walkability.
These are a few of the Oregon communities working to improve walkability:
- Participate in community land use and transportation planning projects
Every county and incorporated town and city in Oregon has a comprehensive plan that includes a transportation system plan. Comprehensive plans are 20-year plans that guide how communities grow and develop.
While the entire comprehensive plan is updated only once every 20 years, different components of the plan are updated more frequently. The transportation system plan must be updated every five years in a way that engages citizens, typically in the form of citizen advisory committees and public meetings. These forums are great opportunities to get involved and speak up for plans that support health by prioritizing walkability.
Local planning agencies also occasionally develop neighborhood-scale community plans that address land use and transportation issues. These also must include opportunities for people to get involved. Most planning departments have websites with information about current and upcoming projects. You can also contact your local planners directly to learn about what’s going on and how to get involved.
To find out more about how to work with local planners and community groups to promote walkable communities, start by visiting the “Active, Healthy Transportation” section of the Oregon Transportation and Growth Management Program website.
- Spark conversations with decision makers
For example, if you are a parent, grandparent or caretaker of school-aged children, start a conversation with the principal or other administrators. Ask them for information about how your community makes it easier for your child to walk or bike to school.
- Explore walking and walkability resources
Share what you learn and what you’re hoping to improve in your community with your family, friends and neighbors, and with other Oregonians at Place Matters Oregon. Other resources to explore:
- Oregon Walks
- Walk with Ease
- Oregon Safe Routes to School
- StepItUp: Surgeon General Call to Action
- Metro “Walk There”
No matter how you choose to get involved, your actions can make a difference. If you care about the physical, mental, social and economic health of your community—and all Oregon communities—walking is a simple but effective way that we can all move toward progress.
Sign up here for the next Data Within Reach Webinar
You’ve read the Health Within Reach blog, now participate in the Data Within Reach webinar! This webinar will feature data on exercise, physical activity and walkability in Oregon. The webinar will also offer an opportunity to ask questions and converse with peers interested in obesity prevention and chronic disease self-management in Oregon.
1 Oregon Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. 2011. Unpublished data