5 Ways Cities Are Making Their Communities More Walkable

Everyone deserves to have a safe place to be active, whether it’s through walking or wheelchair rolling. That’s the message of Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. People in communities across the country are heeding U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s call to action and increasingly stepping up to let city leaders know that walkable communities are important to them.

Walkability Infographic

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of walking trips has increased more than twofold, from 18 billion annual trips in 1990 to 42.5 billion in 2009. (Daily Infographic)

Simply put, if destinations are close by, people will walk to them. Results from recent national surveys show that people want to live in walkable neighborhoods, e.g., those that include sidewalks and have amenities such as restaurants, shops and parks within walking distance.

The Urban Land Institute found that 50 percent of people consider walkability a high or top priority when choosing a place to live. In a survey done by the National Association of Realtors and the Transportation Research Center at Portland State University, 79 percent of respondents indicated that being within walking distance of amenities such as parks and shops was an important factor in the decision of where to buy a home, and 85 percent indicated sidewalks were also important. Furthermore, this survey found that although all generations like to walk, Millennials (people ages 18-34) prefer walking over driving by 12 percent, the largest margin than any other generation.

Businesses are responding to this demand. A new study of approximately 500 different sized companies found that more businesses are moving to walkable downtown locations in small and large cities in an effort to attract and retain employees, because they know that their current and potential employees value neighborhoods within close proximity to restaurants, arts and culture and public transportation.

Cities are responding to this demand as well by developing policies and designing neighborhoods with walkability in mind. Here are a five approaches being used in cities across the country.

  • Walking Audits
    A walking audit can be used to assess the physical environment of an area to improve the infrastructure for pedestrian safety. Walking audits can enhance certain areas within a neighborhood or corridor, a path from home to school or to one’s place of employment. These audits are a powerful tool that can be used to engage community members in conversations about what they see in their neighborhoods. Often the findings from an audit are used for improvements in safety and access, and are incorporated into a city’s pedestrian master plan or a city’s general plan. AARP has a useful Sidewalks and Survey Audit Tool.
  • Complete Streets
    Complete Streets” are designed for safe access for all users regardless of their ability, age or how they travel from point A to point B, including those who travel by foot or wheelchair. Complete Streets often include sidewalks, frequent and safe places to cross streets or intersections, accessible pedestrian ramps and signals, multi-modal bridges and other elements to ensure pedestrians are protected when they travel. Complete Streets approaches will look different in rural locations versus urban areas. Over 700 regional and local agencies have adopted Complete Street policies, and each year Smart Growth America highlights what they consider to be the best policies.
  • Revitalization Projects
    Local parks can be popular draws for residents and visitors alike. Cities have been revitalizing parks to serve as destinations in and of themselves, to function as places to connect different parts of neighborhoods, and improve distressed neighborhoods. Park revitalization models are popping up that are intentional about ensuring that neighborhood parks are walkable and incorporate social equity into their design.


    Chicago’s Daley Bicentennial Plaza was recently transformed into Maggie Daley Park, which provides an opportunity for children, families and adults to walk and explore a park downtown. (Tracy Wiedt)

  •  Healthy Corridors
    Many cities are making enhancements to commercial strips, such as improving safety for pedestrians through sidewalk and intersection improvements. The Rose Center for Public Leadership, a partnership between NLC and the Urban Land Institute, is working with four cities to redevelop their corridors to positively impact the health of residents and their communities. These projects are also focusing on enhancing connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are inhabited by low-income families and people of color.
  • Health in All Policies
    Residents who live in walkable communities often have better health outcomes. To effectively incorporate health elements into policy decisions, cities are turning to a “Health in All Policies” approach to address walkability and pedestrian safety. Health in All Policies is a concerted approach used by decision-makers from various sectors to ensure public policy either positively impacts health or does not negatively impact health.

This week, during lunch, after work or over the weekend, take a walk downtown! See what your city has to offer, whether it’s a new restaurant or a park you haven’t visited before – explore downtown.

About the Author: Tracy Wiedt is the program director for Health & Wellness at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Tracy at wiedt@nlc.org.