The Movement to Make Every American Community Walkable

November 16, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

“Tell me your zip code and I can tell you how healthy you are. That should not be [the case]. … All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”
-Dr. Robert A. Bullard

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Photo by woodleywonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons

We are a nation of walkers,” declared US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the 2nd National Walking Summit on October 29. “Walking is a simple thing we can do” to make America more healthy.

That’s the message of his recent Call to Action on Walking and Walkable Communities, which highlighted the powerful fact that, “an average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity – such as brisk walking – can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes” as well as other debilitating chronic diseases.

Murthy told an overflowing crowd of 500 people from 44 states that, “we need to improve infrastructure in communities to make walking easier.” It’s about justice, he emphasized. It’s about making sure “everyone in America has a good shot at being healthy.”

The goal of equal access to good health resounded throughout the Walking Summit, which was held in Washington, D.C., organized by America Walks, and presented by Kaiser Permanente, along with two dozen co-sponsors spanning the healthcare, philanthropy, business, non-profit and transportation fields.

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” noted opening keynote speaker Dr. Robert A. Bullard, founder of the Environmental Justice movement and Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

As Bullard showed a succession of US maps illustrating how historic segregation and current poverty strongly correlate with low levels of walking and childhood opportunity as well as high levels of obesity and chronic disease, a shocked silence fell over the room. “Health disparities don’t just happen by accident,” he explained. They are symptoms of the ongoing legacy of racism and unequal economic opportunity in this country.

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Ron Sims, who sponsored some of the first research identifying zip codes as an ironclad determinant of health, closed the three-day event on an equally powerful note. “If you have parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and wide sidewalks, you have good health outcomes,” he offered. “If you have walkable communities kids will do better in school…seniors will be healthier.”

Sims drew on his experience as an activist in African-American neighborhoods of Seattle, as well as a former Deputy US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to map out the starting point for reaching healthy communities: new or improved sidewalks, better lighting, access to water and greenspace. “You have no idea how powerful you are,” he said to the hundreds of walking activists in the room. “You are a movement that can ensure this country achieves its great dreams.”

His optimism is grounded in firm evidence that Americans are getting back on their feet. The number of Americans walking has increased 6 percent since 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That adds up to 20 million more people who are walking not just for health, but also for stress reduction, community connection, neighborhood revitalization and the sheer fun of it.

The co-chairs of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative – Joan Dorn of the City University of New York School of Medicine and Kevin Mills of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy – outlined some of the reasons for this good news:

  • The Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkable communities generated huge public discussion, including more than six billion media impressions.
  • The US Department of Transportation is improving life for people who walk or bike with Secretary Anthony Foxx’s Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, which more than 200 cities have joined.
  • In recent years, $1.5 billion dollars have gone toward walking and biking improvements, although that’s still less than one percent of overall transportation spending, as Sims noted.
  • Vision Zero campaigns – redesigning traffic policies with the goal of no fatalities for walkers, bikers and motorists – have been launched in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, San Jose, Boston and other cities.
  • More than 700 towns, counties and states have enacted Complete Streets policies, which consider the needs of all users – not just vehicles – in building and maintaining roads.
  • Safe Routes to School programs are ensuring kids can walk or bike to school in virtually every corner of the country.

The Summit’s message of walking as a fundamental right also drew new attention to many groups that suffer the most from unsafe streets for pedestrians in many American communities: people of color, low-income earners, children, the elderly, and the disabled.

“All of us with divergent missions – from healthcare to social justice to land trusts to neighborhood revitalization – have a convergent strategy to get more people out walking and create safe places to walk everywhere,” noted Tyler Norris, Vice President of Kaiser Permanente. As Kate Kraft, National Coalition Director for America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative concluded: “The Summit shows the movement is expanding from walking as a way to improve public health to walking as a human and civil right, a moral imperative … A community that is walkable for everyone means less disenfranchisement and more connection.”

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Photo by George Redgrave, Flickr Creative Commons

Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper—author of The Great Neighborhood Book—writes, speaks and consults across North America about how to create better communities.  The former editor of Utne Reader magazine and contributing editor of National Geographic Traveler, he lives in Minneapolis and is a Fellow at Augsburg University.  Find out more at:

Tags: economic justice, public health, sustainable transport, walkable neighborhoods