Can you take your dog for a walk and feel safe? Are there sidewalks to keep you from dodging cars as you walk? How walkable is your community?
When people think about living healthy lifestyles that include daily physical activity, the layout of their neighborhood doesn’t always immediately come to mind. However, the design of roads and public spaces can often have a direct effect on community members’ level of activity. In fact, neighborhood walkability is so important to health the U.S. Surgeon General just kicked off a national Call to Action to promote walking and encourage cities. But in a significant move away from the exclusive emphasis on individual behavior, the Surgeon General also urges towns to design spaces to make outdoor activity safer and more convenient.
Physical activity has been linked to numerous benefits, including reduced risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. But the responsibility to live a healthy life cannot fall solely on the individual or even the public health sector. All sectors should be mindful of creating environments that allow for healthy living.
So what if we labeled neighborhoods with walkability grades much like we label restaurants with sanitation grades of A, B, C, D or F? Or we posted warnings like those on cigarettes to identify neighborhoods that lack the basic infrastructure to allow for physical activity. Unsurprisingly, we would probably find most low-income neighborhoods have been neglected. One only has to take a walk through a high and then low-income neighborhood to see obvious disparities. Low-income neighborhoods often lack such things as street lamps, crosswalks, and well-maintained sidewalks. All things that make walking safe and convenient. The demand for walkable neighborhoods exists. Creating a Call to Action is step one, but now we need all sectors to prioritize building environments where this is possible.