For many of us, it’s a utopian ideal: a place where we can live, work and recreate. A place where we can walk to work, bike to the store, and access a local recreation trail, all without hopping in a car and hassling for parking. On a pragmatic level, this type of well-planned neighborhood reduces transportation costs and improves local property values. Moreover, on a health level, such a living space shifts the focus on physical activity away from a leisure-time activity (one that requires a sufficient amount of free time) to an activity of daily living (one that accomplishes tasks associated with everyday life). This public health approach is one that many think is the only way to sustainably reduce obesity and improve fitness in the United States. Indeed, data support that people who live in safe and walkable communities have a lower BMI (body mass index, a measure of obesity), suggesting that local and state public health agencies could really emphasize community walkability as way to improve measurable health outcomes. For example, in San Diego and Seattle, children that live in areas scored high for walkability and access to parks are 59% less likely to be obese than children living in low scoring areas.
So, do such walkable places exist? In 2012, Slate magazine published a series of articles on walking in the United States, pointing out that “the decline of walking has become a full-blown public health nightmare,” as “walking has been engineered out of existence.” And certainly it is true that US citizens walk the least of any other population in developed countries, covering only 5000 steps/day compared to the 10,000 steps/day the Swiss and Australians walk or even the 7000 steps/day the Japanese take. However, in the same series, Slate also profiled the website Walkscore, which aims to put a novel score on the walkability of a community by examining choice and proximity to amenities. In other words, how walkable the community is becomes derived from measuring the quantity and quality of surrounding institutions (schools, restaurants, businesses) that would allow one to spend increasing amounts of time in physically active transport. It becomes obvious from examining Walkscore that some communities are extremably walkable, scoring as high as an 88 (New York City) or an 84 (San Francisco). By contrast, Atlanta, with its legendary highways and traffic, scores a 46. Where I live in the West End of Hartford is fairly walkable (scoring a 71), although the accompanying heat map (with red being least walkable and green being most walkable) indicates some urban schizophrenia as pedestrian friendly areas in the neighborhood vie with busy city streets such as Albany Ave. Interestingly, neighboring West Hartford scores only a 40 on walkability, because so much of the town is spread out and accessible only by car despite the pedestrian convenience of the Center and Blueback Square.
How do we even further optimize the walkability of a community? According to a recent article from Governing, many walkable communities are growing and improving their physical activity infrastructure by strengthening the geographical connection between living and working. For example, in Cambridge, MA, 24.5% of commuters walk to work, the same number as take public transportation and only 10% fewer than those who drive cars. Pretty impressive! Other college towns and urban areas are also making strides, mainly by focusing on developing and sustaining neighborhoods that have a few similar elements key to walking: densely populated neighborhoods, commercial district city squares, public transit lines, short city blocks, and local ordinances and building policies that favor the physically active commuter. Zoning districts that emphasize mixed-used development (i.e., affordable housing, office spaces, and commercial real estate) lead to transitions from single-purpose, isolated districts to neighborhoods, with the target demographic often being younger adults who cannot or do not want to own or use a personal vehicle.
How does Hartford stack up on the commuting metric? This interactive map shows commuting patterns of cities of populations >100,000. In Hartford, 7.9% of commuters walk to work, with a median age of 32.9 years. This is better than Bridgeport, but worse than New Haven…and certainly a place from which to improve. Regardless, community walkability is a a fairly convicing public health and policy concept: where we live becomes who we are and how we live.