Walk this Way

June 1, 2012, Department, by Maggie Cooper

People have a tendency to see only aspects of their community that affect them personally. A parent views the busy street near a park as a safety threat to his or her kids—while the driver in a hurry accelerates to the 45 MPH speed limit without even noticing the park. A public works manager sees a sidewalk and judges it to be in good condition; at the same time the parks director wishes that sidewalk connected to the park, and the transportation director notices that the sidewalk isn’t wide enough to meet ADA standards.

Despite the different elements people value in the same community, all of want access to safe, friendly, and active environments. All too often, though, instead of coming together to create the best possible version of their community, citizens notice only what is specifically interesting to them.

A fantastic way to allow people to see the potential their community has is by doing a walking audit. A walking audit (also referred to as a walking assessment) is a “review of walking conditions along specified streets conducted with a diverse group of community members”. Depending on the size of a community, the audit may consist of one 90-minute walk or several excursions over a few weeks. The leader does not have to be a walking audit expert, although he or she should have an understanding of basic urban planning principles and complete streets. It is best to limit the walk to 30 people or fewer. Because of this limit, many communities decide to offer numerous walks in an effort to collect input from as many people as possible.

Before you start a walking audit, you will need to set one major ground rule: During this walk, all opinions are equal. Once everyone has agreed to value each other’s thoughts and comments, outline the basic environmental details they should be focusing on. Examples could include sidewalk width and condition, street crossings, connectivity, parking, overall feel of the street, building placement, and zoning type. Stop frequently and ask for opinions on what you just saw. Have participants rate each block (1=bad, 5=perfect) and comment on what they noticed and how they felt while walking.

Also, ask some participants to pretend to be someone other than themselves. You can, for example, ask the mayor to focus on issues the public works director would be likely to notice. Ask your police chief to push a baby stroller and point out issues that might concern a mother walking with several children. Have your transportation engineer consider aesthetics, while asking your planning commissioner to make note of street and sidewalk widths. Ask the most physically active person to do portions of the audit in a wheelchair. When residents look at their surroundings through someone else’s eyes, they will see aspects of their community that they have probably never noticed before.

While it is important to include your high-level decision-makers in your audits, don’t leave out less obvious groups of people. A local Girl Scout troop in Hernando, Mississippi, did a walking audit of downtown sidewalks for a community service project. They produced a detailed GIS map based on their findings, which they presented to the Board of Alderman the night the sidewalk budget was on the agenda. Later that night, the board approved $100,000 for sidewalk repairs.   

Every community will notice different things on their walk, but the most common problems tend to be crumbling sidewalks, lack of curb-cuts, too narrow sidewalks, no safe street crossing opportunities, uninviting street front buildings, lack of safe biking areas, and poor connectivity. While conducting an audit in his town, Drew Burns, Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation in Van Buren, Michigan, was thrilled see to a large number of people running, walking, and biking around town. What disturbed him, though, was that the majority of these people had to switch frequently from the sidewalks to roads and then back to sidewalks. “Connectivity is a huge issue here. Most developments put in great sidewalks, but there aren’t any means to walk from one development to the next.”   

Remember that this is also an opportunity to notice good things about your community. Take note of where the environment is safe for walking. Point out the streets where the tree canopy is plentiful and where the surroundings invite people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks. Notice businesses that have inviting storefronts and restaurants that have outdoor tables. Thank the pedestrians and bicyclists who are safely using the pathways. By recognizing the positive attributes of your community, participants will take pride in where they live, which often results in their getting involved in improving their surroundings.

Lastly, be sure to make the walking audit fun. The person leading the walk must be energetic, outgoing, and loud. Incorporate fun facts about your community into the walk by inviting a local historian to participate. If children are on the walk, invite them to voice their opinions. Hand out disposable cameras to participants who do not have camera phones, and encourage people to take pictures of everything they like or want to change. Start and end the walk in a local park, perhaps on a day when you have a farmers market, summer camp, or local festival going on in the park.  

So now that you know the basics, start planning your walking audit. You will make new friends, see your neighborhood in a new way, strengthen relationships with city officials, and figure out ways to get more people active throughout the community.

If you are interested in bringing a walking audit professional to your community, please visit www.markfenton.com. For more information about walking audits and making your community more walkable, please visit: www.americawalks.org; www.saferoutesinfo.org; www.pedbikeinfo.org; www.activelivingresearch.org; www.walkable.org.  

Maggie Cooper is NRPA Health and Wellness Program Manager.