November 7, 2015
Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a call to action for Americans to “Step It Up.” This call is designed to promote walking and walkable communities, and underscores the importance of physical activity for people of all ages and abilities. It invites us to walk more, and also calls on local leaders to design communities to support walking and walkability.
I had the privilege of hearing this message from the surgeon general in person while attending the recent national Walking Summit in Washington, D.C. More than 500 advocates from around the country shared ideas. Walkable communities are the hot thing in urban design and the trend is forecast to grow rapidly.
Walkability increases property values, can reduce crime (more eyes on the street), and offers significant health benefits. It lowers stress, strengthens muscles and improves cardiovascular and mental health. Walking also helps people lose or control weight. It’s one of the best health strategies for those with diabetes or chronic diseases.
Seeing people out walking also contributes to a sense of community. When walking your dog, your kids to school or through a park, you’re more likely to wave to neighbors or stop and visit, which is impossible when whizzing by at 45 mph in a car. Walking is friendly by design.
But if there are no sidewalks, crosswalks, shade trees or accessible trails, it’s difficult for kids to walk to school, or for adults to walk to a park, to work, to a SunRail station, or to run errands. Walkability, or the lack thereof, is also an issue of equity. Many lower-income communities are even less walkable and more dangerous by design.
Central Florida has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous place in the nation for people to walk. The lack of aware, informed or courteous drivers only exacerbates this already deadly problem.
But we are making progress. Collective efforts of groups like Bike Walk Central Florida, Orlando, Orange County and municipalities like Winter Park — which voted to reduce a neighborhood four-lane road to two — are all making a difference. Innovative measures are helping change our behavior and culture. But more is needed.
As leaders we must make walking (and biking) a safe, inviting and viable choice because lives are at stake.
Let’s answer that call, and join the many cities that have made the commitment and the investment to make our communities healthy, safe and walkable for all.
Jill Hamilton Buss is executive director of Healthy Central Florida, a community-based initiative founded by Florida Hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation to focus on making the community healthy.