Surgeon General's prescription for health: walkable communities

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Public Domain Surgeon General

It's not easy to walk in much of North America; most people now live in suburbs that were designed for cars. Now the US Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, is calling for a change.

Walking helps people stay both physically and mentally healthy. It brings business districts to life and can help reduce air pollution. However, there are barriers to choosing even this simple form of physical activity. Many of us live in neighborhoods that can present barriers to walking. Important places, such as shops, schools, parks, or senior centers, may not be near enough to reach by walking; there may be no sidewalks; or there may be concerns about safety. Lack of time can be a barrier, as can health problems.

He is also calling for a redesign of our communities.

People should be able to walk almost anywhere. Designing communities to encourage pedestrian activity will make it safer and easier for all users, including those with mobility limitations and other disabilities. For example, streets can be designed to include sidewalks and improve traffic safety, and communities can locate residences, schools, worksites, businesses, parks, recreational facilities, and other places that people regularly use within walkable distance of each other.

sidewalkBroken Atlanta Sidewalks/PEDS/CC BY 2.0

Of course, this is almost exactly what doesn't happen anymore. Even in cities, the walking infrastructure is barely acknowledged, like this sidewalk in Atlanta.

My first reaction to this is that his advice for the transportation, land use and urban design sector, repeated below, will be studiously ignored. But people take doctors (and surgeon generals) seriously.

doctors and camelsVintage Camel ad/Promo image

It was the Surgeon General Luther Terry's 1964 report on smoking that really started the campaigns to regulate smoking, resulting in a drop from almost half the country smoking to less than 18 percent today. Anthony Komaroff, M.D. Editor of the Harvard Health Letter calls him a hero:

I have many heroes. I don’t think you can overdo having heroes. Surgeon General Terry, and the epidemiological scientists who collected the evidence that he used, are near the top of my list. I’ll bet the eight million people who didn’t die young because of Dr. Terry’s message, and their loved ones, would agree.

Could a Surgeon General's report on walking make a difference in the design of our communities? Could Vivek H. Murthy do for cities and walkability what Luther Terry did to tobacco? I wonder.

From the report:

All Americans use roads, and most people across the country use sidewalks and live in communities that have planned how their land will be used. Transportation, land use, and community design planners have the power to increase opportunities for walking and improve the pedestrian experience by designing and maintaining communities and streets to make them safe and accessible for people of all ages and abilities.

The transportation, land use, and community design sector can promote walking and walkable communities through the following strategies:

Design and maintain streets and sidewalks so that walking is safe and easy.

  • Design streets, sidewalks, and crosswalks that encourage walking for people of all ages and abilities.
  • Improve traffic safety on streets and sidewalks.
  • Keep existing sidewalks and other places to walk free from hazards.

Design communities that support safe and easy places for people to walk.

  • Adopt community planning, land use, development, and zoning policies and plans that support walking for people of all ages and abilities.
  • Locate schools, worksites, businesses, parks, recreational facilities, and other places that people regularly use within walkable distance of each other.
  • Support safe, efficient, and easy-to-use public transit systems and transit-oriented development.

Promote community programs and policies that make it safe and easy for residents to walk.

  • Provide safe and convenient access for all users to community locations that support walking, such as walking trails, parks, recreational facilities, and college campuses.

Tags: Urban Planning | Walking

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