Saturday , January 20 2018

“Open exchange of ideas around the challenges of creating walking communities”

Professional conferences can be simultaneously eye-opening and frustrating, uplifting and dispiriting, motivational and inert. Why? Because conferences are full of amazing ideas. Ideas that have found success. Ideas that you would love to implement. Ideas that would likely never make it off the ground in your business, organization, location, etc.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the America Walks, National Walking Summit in St. Paul. Reflecting on the pre-conference trainings, the plenaries, and the break-out sessions, I am struck with this pervading theme: Frank, open exchange of ideas around the challenges of creating walking communities.

My conference journey began with the “Learning-From-Place Mobile Workshop” entitled, Minneapolis’ First Shared Street. Upon arrival, I admit, I was disappointed. This was not what I expected. What I imagined would be a vibrant street, had one restaurant and apartment buildings on one side, and nothing on the other; cars did not seem to realize that the street was a “shared” space; and, there was minimal pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The discussion that ensued was about lessons learned. We looked at the architecture of the street, the location of the street, street signage, community education, and the politics behind “why this street?” The project is not yet complete so there is hope that the next phase will add a new chapter to the story. This shared street is not a booming success but the efforts to create it are inspirational.

The lunch plenary is a difficult time to speak. Participants are still talking about their morning sessions while trying to decide on their afternoon sessions. They are hungry. Between the “please pass the butter,” and the “don’t we get dessert?” speakers need to hold participants’ attention. Tamika Butler, Executive Director, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (and everyone on the panel) held the audience captive. Ms. Butler spoke unequivocally about racial and social disparities in the walking movement. She called on White advocates to know when to push an agenda and when to “shut up and listen.” With a blunt style, she reminded us that physical “place” in a community encompasses history, access, and opportunity; that equality is not pervasive; that what one neighbor views as an improvement, another neighbor views as an infringement on safety. We must do better.

The final session I attended, “It Takes a Village” also focused on the social determinants of health; the fact that zip code has a greater impact than genetics on how long we live; and how we reach the individuals in communities at greatest risk. The issues we confront as walking advocates, planners, and policy makers can be daunting, but this session focused on some (relatively) small, localized steps that can move us in the right direction: Combine walking and food audits, particularly around schools; Hire someone in the community you are trying to reach, someone that speaks multiple languages if need be; Create walking maps around schools that can be used as “story maps” to highlight food and healthcare resources in the immediate area.

Sitting at the airport, waiting out my 2.5-hour delay, I found myself thinking through the learning experience of the Walking Summit. I had ideas…I could maybe even get them off the ground before my plane lifted off.

Lauren Finn
Lancaster (Pennsylvania) General Health


This is #6 in a series of essays on the 2017 National Walking Summit. #1#2#3#4, and #5.

About Pam Eidson

Pam Eidson is executive director of the National Physical Activity Society.

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