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Jay Walljasper: Getting America Back on its Feet

October 3, 2013

It’s time to launch a walking movement to strengthen our health and communities.

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Image from Flickr via lindejesus

By Jay Walljasper
By arrangement with On the Commons

Americans’ #1 favorite physical activity is walking, reports the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walking also plays a fundamental role in our transportation system, with 11 percent of all trips made on foot, according to the US Department of Transportation. Neighborhoods that rank high for walkability (where walking is safe and convenient) enjoy a greater sense of community and higher property values according to recent studies.

Another benefit of walking is better health. Studies document that moderate physical activity like a thirty-minute daily stroll can cut rates of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and colon cancer by at least 40 percent, and save more than $100 billion a year in health care costs according to the American Public Health Association.

So why don’t Americans walk more? We take about half as many steps each day as Australians.

It’s not that we’re lazy. In the decades after World War II an historic transformation of America’s population occurred as millions of Americans moved from walkable small towns and cities to suburbs, which favored cars over feet. At the same time we redesigned our communities based on the notion that walking was an outmoded activity. As a result, some of the most prominent commons in our lives vanished: sidewalks, parks, walking paths, promenades. By the year 2000 the average American adult was driving about 14,000 miles per year and spending more than 212 hours annually commuting in a car—the equivalent of five work weeks. Walking for both transportation and recreation went into a dramatic decline.

This automobile-dominated way of life has triggered some ominous consequences for us as individuals and communities. Obesity and related diseases escalate. Social connection and community vitality decline.

Walking is a basic human instinct, but climbing into vehicles has become second nature to most Americans of all ages for going to work, getting to school, seeing friends, shopping, even exercise. Traveling on foot can often feel unsafe, unpleasant and alien today.

This automobile-dominated way of life has triggered some ominous consequences for us as individuals and communities. Obesity and related diseases escalate. Social connection and community vitality decline. Greenhouse gases disrupt our climate. Families are forced to devote a high percentage of their income to own two or more cars, while those who can’t afford one miss out on economic and social opportunities. Many children, seniors and differently-abled people live under a form of house arrest.

Fortunately Americans are now rediscovering walking and our communities are becoming more walkable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Americans walked six percent more in 2010 than in 2005, and the number of miles we drove declined 7.5 percent since 2004. The Millennial Generation (people born between 1980 and 2005), in particular, show a strong desire to live in communities where they can get around easily on foot.

The public health and urban planning professions are now joining forces to promote health by creating more walkable communities, just as they did in the late 19th century to improve water and sanitation systems (another form of the commons). Meanwhile grassroots efforts are growing in cities, suburbs and small towns to make communities safer and more comfortable for all of us to walk. Numerous health and community organizations from across the U.S. are gathering in Washington DC Oct. 1-3 for the National Walking Summit to launch a full-fledged walking movement.

America is getting back on its feet.

Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org, created OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. A speaker, communications strategist and writer and editor, he chronicles stories from around the world that point us toward a more equitable, sustainable and enjoyable future. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and a senior associate at the urban affairs consortium Citiscope. Walljasper also writes a column about city life for Shareable.net and is a Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces and Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning.

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