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.  

Mayors’ Challenge Seeks to Create Safer Walking and Bicycling Networks

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx issued the Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists over the next year.

Bike lanesMayors who commit to creating safer, more connected walking and bicycling networks in their cities will be invited to attend the Mayors’ Summit for Safer People, Safer Streets on March 12 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including 80 percent of Americans. The increase in the number of city dwellers in the U.S. correlates with an increase in the number of people using non-motorized forms of transportation, such as walking and bicycling, to move around their communities. However, this increase in healthy and environmentally friendly travel modes has a significant downside – pedestrian and bicycle injuries and fatalities have steadily increased since 2009.

Elected officials at the local, state and federal level recognize the need to create safer, more connected walking and bicycling networks. As part of the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a challenge to mayors and other local elected officials to create safer walking and bicycling options for their residents. He challenged city leaders to undertake seven activities over the next year to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists of all ages and abilities. Over 90 cities have already joined the challenge.

Many mayors, city councilmembers and other local elected officials are already making changes to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. In Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael B. Coleman and the city council adopted the Safe Streets Ordinance, which includes provisions that clarify that bicyclists are protected under the law from being “doored” by motorists, and specify that motor vehicles must allow a minimum of three feet when passing bicycles.

Cyclobia Brownsville 1

City streets are closed to vehicles during CycloBia Brownsville. (photo credit: City of Brownsville, Texas)

In Brownsville, Texas, City Commissioner Rose Gowen and other city leaders have adopted an Open Streets approach; through CycloBia Brownsville the city closes some public streets during designated times so residents can safely use city streets for walking, bicycling and other recreational activities.

Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, Okla., is leading an effort to consciously redesign and rebuild the city’s streetscapes with millennials in mind, many of whom are less likely to have a driver’s license and more likely to walk, bike and use public transportation.

NLC, through Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties has helped cities implement strategies such as Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School and Open Streets to improve the design and use of streets for pedestrians and cyclists. To date, more than 200 cities and counties are using such strategies to enhance opportunities for residents who walk and bike to school, to work and just for fun.

To make your city safer and easier to navigate for pedestrians and bicyclists, sign up for the Safer People, Safer Streets Mayors’ Challenge today! When you sign up, let us know on Twitter by using the hashtag #mayors4safety.

About the Author: Tracy Wiedt is the Program Manager for Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties at the National League of Cities.

Local Elected Officials Honored for Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties Achievements

Everyone has a role to play in preventing childhood obesity, including local elected officials who serve as leaders in adopting policies or making environmental changes so children in their communities reach their full potential and live healthy lives.

Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass and NLC President Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers of Avondale, Ariz. at the Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties Celebration Event at the Congress of Cities and Exposition.

Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass and NLC President Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers of Avondale, Ariz. at the Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties Celebration Event at the Congress of Cities and Exposition.

As a part of Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC), communities can earn bronze, silver and gold medals in each of the initiative’s five goals, which are aimed at helping young people eat healthy and be physically active. Since July 2012, the National League of Cities has awarded 1,274 medals to participating local elected officials.

Last week, nearly 400 mayors, city councilmembers, and other local elected officials were honored for their participation in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties at a celebratory event at NLC’s Congress of Cities in Seattle, Wash.

Eighteen communities and the local elected officials leading the efforts in these communities, who have made the most progress in completing the five LMCTC goals, were also honored during the event:

  • Sites with populations with less than 25,000: Hawaiian Gardens, Calif.; Kenmore, Wash.; and Selma, Ala.
  • Sites with populations between 25,000 and 49,999: Annapolis, Md. and Casa Grande, Ariz.
  • Sites with populations between 50,000 and 99,999: Davenport, Iowa; Jackson, Tenn.; Meriden, Conn.; Revere, Mass.; and Somerville, Mass.
  • Sites with populations between 100,000 and 249,999: Beaumont, Texas; Columbia, S.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Norfolk, Va.; Orlando, Fla.; and Rancho Cucamonga, Calf.
  • Sites with populations more than 250,000: Columbus, Ohio and Knox County, Tenn.
Local officials receive awards for LMCTC achievements. Pictured from left are NLC Immediate Past President Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers of Avondale, Ariz.; Selma, Ala. Mayor George Evans; Beaumont, Texas Councilman Alan Coleman; Columbia, S.C. Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine; and Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass.

Local officials receive awards for LMCTC achievements. Pictured from left are NLC Immediate Past President Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers of Avondale, Ariz.; Selma, Ala. Mayor George Evans; Beaumont, Texas Councilman Alan Coleman; Columbia, S.C. Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine; and Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass.

The first city to earn five gold medals, Beaumont, Texas, was also honored. Through the leadership of Councilman Alan Coleman and city staff, Beaumont was recognized for their achievements, including hosting a multi-purpose training session where local childcare providers learned and discussed nutrition standards with a dietician.

During the event, Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass commended the city leaders receiving awards and challenged them to take additional actions to improve the health of their communities. A panel comprised of Councilman Coleman; Columbia, S.C. Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine; and Selma, Ala. Mayor George Evans also provided city leaders in the audience with examples of what is working in their cities to address childhood obesity.

For more information about the LMCTC initiative, its accomplishments, and how local elected officials can sign up, visit: www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org

Are Cities Helping Turn the Tide in America’s Fight Against Childhood Obesity?

The good news:  After increasing for more than three decades, we are beginning to see childhood obesity rates fall in some states and communities.  The bad news is that these improvements are not reaching every city, town, and county.

Earlier this month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the White House celebrated important milestones in their efforts to promote children’s health.  On July 9, RWJF held an event to showcase signs of improvement in four states (California, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia) and five communities (Anchorage, Alaska; Granville and Vance Counties, N.C.; Kearney, Neb.; New York City; and Philadelphia) where childhood obesity rates have declined.  The following day, First Lady Michelle Obama joined the National League of Cities to celebrate the achievements made by local elected officials in 330 communities, which represent more than 56 million Americans, that are participating in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.

To date, NLC has awarded 1,019 bronze, silver and gold “medals” to these local elected officials for achieving benchmarks related to the five LMCTC goals. Accomplishments include:

  • 155 communities with an active, interagency collaboration on early care and education programs to help young children develop healthy habits at an early age;
  • 991 city or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are displaying MyPlate to provide a visual reminder of the healthy choices to consider when eating meals;
  • 69 city- or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are adopting healthy food service guidelines aligned with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans;
  • 898,266 students who are participating in the School Breakfast Program and 1,511,717 students who are participating in the National School Lunch Program;
  • 161 communities that are creating or revitalizing park and recreation facilities; and
  • 137 communities that are making it easier to walk and bike to school or work.

We do not know which efforts have made the greatest contributions to reducing childhood obesity.  But we do know how this obesity epidemic originated: over time, children have had fewer opportunities for physical activity and less healthy food in their diets.  Making progress on obesity requires addressing the environmental factors behind these trends.  Cities, towns and counties are playing unique leadership roles in building communities that promote healthy living.

For instance, the City of Missoula, Mont., and Missoula County adopted healthier standards for all vending and concession contracts in public places.  Students also have more opportunities to be physically active thanks to a joint use agreement between the school district and parks department that opens the school gym for free programming for fourth and fifth graders.  The City of Newton, Mass., added a bike lane and sidewalk improvement program to promote more walking and cycling.  In Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the city is using a health-in-all-policies approach, passing a top-ranked Complete Streets policy, changing zoning policies to promote community gardens, and requiring 75 percent of products sold at farmers’ markets to meet healthy food guidelines.

Yet, there is much work ahead.  According to a recent study by the University of Washington, among 34 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 27th in disease burden risk from dietary factors such as diets low in fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.  In addition, the U.S. remains one of the most obese countries in the world. The study also showed that where you live is a key predictor of health.  While residents of San Francisco, Fairfax County, Va., and Gunnison, Colo., have some of the highest life expectancies in the world, individuals in other U.S. counties experience life expectancies that are lower than or similar to levels seen in North African and Southeast Asian countries.

In her remarks on July 10, the First Lady asked local elected leaders in the audience to “double down” on their efforts and “push a little bit harder” on the actions they are taking.  She challenged city and county leaders to bring more people, such as faith leaders, business owners, teachers and parents, to the table and to encourage local elected officials in other communities to join Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.  A list of participating communities is available here.

All of us have a stake in ensuring that our children grow up to become healthy and productive adults.  Whether the U.S. makes continued progress in the fight against childhood obesity or slips further behind other nations on health indicators may hinge on the burgeoning city and county efforts to create healthier communities.

To sign up or learn more about Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties, including seeing the progress made by the more than 330 municipalities and counties participating, please visit www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org