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Building connections and resisting oppressions.

How to Turn Neighborhoods Into Hubs of Resilience

 PUSH
Photo courtesy of PUSH Buffalo

Think of it as a silver lining to the gathering dark clouds. We live in an era of extraordinary disruption, from the serial crises of a changing climate to the wrenching shifts of a globalized economy. But in that disruption lies the potential for positive transformation.

Addressing climate change requires adapting to the impacts that are already here—heat waves, droughts, superstorms and more—while preventing and mitigating future impacts. Taking these challenges seriously calls for radical changes in the way we live. It calls us to zero out our carbon emissions, and to rethink the systems that shape our lives, including the economy, food and power. It calls us to fundamentally transition from a world of domination and extraction to a world of regeneration, resilience, and interdependence.

It’s a tall order, no doubt, but that transition is already underway. In our work with movement builders on the front lines of the transition, we’ve identified two key guideposts—connectedness and equity—that point us toward the world we want.

Connectedness is the recognition that our well-being is inextricably tied to that of other people and the planet itself. It means there are no throwaway people, no throwaway places, no throwaway anything. In fact, there’s no “away”; there’s just here. In practice, connectedness is about lifting up the voices of the marginalized, and it means regenerating forgotten places, from industrial brownfields to hollowed-out rural towns and Rust Belt cities. The second guidepost, equity, is about recognizing and repairing the harm generated by situations of extreme power imbalance. Equity is about building power from the bottom up.

When communities are fully engaged in problem-solving, they come up with holistic solutions that address complex, interlocking challenges. Here are three.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, the waterfront neighborhood of Sunset Park was hit hard. Power lines toppled and businesses were shuttered. The neighborhood’s industrial district flooded, washing toxic residue into nearby residential areas.

But as the people of Sunset Park worked together to rebuild, a hopeful possibility emerged. What if the neighborhood rebuilt in ways that made the local economy more resilient and equitable, while limiting the impact of climate change? That’s the vision of UPROSE, a grassroots environmental justice group that took root in Sunset Park 50 years ago.

“Superstorm Sandy was a real wakeup call for our community,” says UPROSE director Elizabeth Yeampierre. “Climate change is here now, and waterfront communities like ours are extremely vulnerable.” The neighborhood’s low-income, immigrant residents were especially at risk, so in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, they turned to UPROSE for a community organizing effort to prepare for a wetter, more uncertain future.

The plan they came up with builds climate resilience while protecting the environment, health, and—crucially—jobs.

The point is not simply to rebuild what was there before; UPROSE members don’t want more jobs in the same dirty industries that had polluted the neighborhood for decades. “We have a lot of businesses on the waterfront, and we want to keep them here because people need places to work,” Yeampierre says. “But we want safe places to work.” To that end, UPROSE has joined forces with labor unions, the Center for Working Families, and business owners to transform Sunset Park’s industrial space into a manufacturing hub that produces environmentally friendly building and construction materials, powered by renewable energy. And they are encouraging these industries to hire locally.

It’s a plan that addresses many problems at once. In a city with skyrocketing inequality and rampant gentrification, it could help preserve the blue-collar jobs that once anchored the middle class. At the same time, it could reduce toxic hazards and make Sunset Park a safer, healthier place to live. And it could reduce the carbon emissions that are driving that change.

The process of developing the plan was as transformational as the plan itself. UPROSE consults with residents on the future they want, then arms them with the tools they need to make that vision a reality. Some residents take on the role of block captains and gather input and educate their neighbors on city planning processes. Through partnerships with researchers, residents conduct participatory action research on issues of concern. It’s a deeply democratic, holistic approach that builds local power and increases community control over resources—key elements of community resilience.

Buffalo, New York

Left behind by the globalized economy, Buffalo has lost more than half its population since 1950. By 2005, when the community group People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo was founded, residents of the West Side neighborhood were struggling with unemployment, rampant blight, and high energy costs.

At that time, there were an estimated 23,000 vacant homes in Buffalo. PUSH took on a state housing agency that was using vacant buildings to speculate on Wall Street, and got the buildings turned over to the community—with funding to fix them up.

Next, PUSH brought together hundreds of community residents to craft a plan for a large, blighted area. The result is a 25-square-block Green Development Zone(GDZ), which is now a model of energy-efficient, affordable housing. PUSH and its nonprofit development company rehabilitate homes in the GDZ, installing efficiency upgrades, like insulation and geothermal heating, that dramatically lower residents’ utility bills. The organization won a New York state grant to build 46 new homes, including a net zero house, which produces as much energy as it consumes.

The GDZ doubles as a jobs program. Through its construction projects, PUSH has cultivated a growing network of contractors who are committed to hiring locally. And PUSH successfully advocated for New York’s Green Jobs-Green New York program, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing energy upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.

Across the West Side, PUSH has transformed the urban landscape. In partnership with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Massachusetts Avenue Project, PUSH has turned trash-strewn, vacant lots into state-of-the-art rain gardens, small urban farms, and aquaponics greenhouses. These urban oases bolster food security, while providing much-needed green space.

Richmond, California

A predominantly low-income community of color is challenging the oil giant that has long dominated their city.

In Richmond, the 3,000-acre Chevron refinery looms over the city with towering smokestacks and tangled pipes going in every direction. The largest of its kind in California, the Chevron refinery showers Richmond with unpronounceable toxic chemicals and periodic fiery explosions that put residents at risk. As a major source of jobs and tax revenue, Chevron has long held outsized influence on the city’s politics. But, fed up with their toxic neighbor, residents are working to counterbalance the company’s political muscle.

The first step was to activate community power. A coalition of local nonprofits including the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment(ACCE), the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and Faith-Works brought residents together to devise solutions to community problems.

The coalition organized forums and rallies, held regular learning institutes for decision-makers, and encouraged public participation at planning commission meetings. In this way, residents reshaped their city’s General Plan to make Richmond less reliant on Chevron. The new General Plan emphasizes green industries, anti-displacement policies, and better mass transit systems. Now, the coalition is at work translating the plan into projects, programs, and laws.

At the same time, the Our Power campaign in Richmond is working to build community control over essential resources, such as food, land, water, and energy. Our Power partners with Cooperation Richmond, a local co-op incubator and loan fund that helps low-income residents create their own cooperatively owned businesses. The group holds the annual Our Power Festival, which brings together residents, small businesses, and the public sector to envision a transition to local energy management.

Despite this groundswell of community organizing, Chevron continued to hold sway on the City Council. So the organizers switched to electoral tactics to supporting progressive candidates who would stand up to the oil giant. And it worked. In 2014, despite millions of dollars invested in the election by Chevron, residents voted in candidates aligned with community values and renewable energy.

“Winning political power, especially in this political moment, is critical for communities at the intersection of poverty and pollution,” says APEN Action executive director Miya Yoshitani. “If we are going to win back our democracy from the hands of corporations, and win the powerful vision we have for living local economies, we need to invest in organizing the power of the people and the polls in all our neighborhoods.”


Taj James and Rosa González wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Taj James is the founder, executive director, and a board member of Movement Strategy Center, a national nonprofit that promotes movement-building strategies and supports organizations to work more collaboratively and sustainably.

Rosa is the center’s director of applied practice and leads the Community Climate Solutions program to advance transformative resilience strategies that accelerate the emerging transition to a regenerative and interconnected world.

A More Equitable Economy Exists Right Next Door

 Quebec
Photo courtesy Jay Walljasper

  • Business owners gather at an elegant Montreal event center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a large-scale economic partnership.The former chief of Quebec’s largest bank is the guest of honor.
  • Sidewalks bustle with people walking in and out of homes, offices, a bank, a pharmacy, a workout studio and a coffee shop at Montreal’s Technopole Angus — a development that already sports 56 business with 2500 employees and will eventually encompass a million-square-feet of real estate.
  • Morning-shift workers unload barrels of paper onto conveyor belts emptying into giant shredding machines on the shop floor of Recyclage Vanier, a Quebec City firm specializing in secure disposal of confidential documents.
  • A line snakes down the street for a matinee at the Cinema Beaubien, an art deco moviehouse in a quiet Montreal neighborhood. Taxis line up across the street waiting for customers who will soon be getting out of the early show.
  • Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice rings through the taproom at La Barberie Brewery, located near Quebec City’s business district.Their Belgian-style saisons and bestselling blackberry blanc beers are enjoyed throughout the province. A few blocks away, an 18th century monastery inside Quebec City’s historic walls has recently opened its doors as a hotel and spa.

Welcome to everyday life in Quebec — Canada’s 2nd largest province with 8.2 million people. Yet these scenes of economic activity are different in a notable way from similar ones occurring throughout North America.

Each enterprise involves a cooperative or non-profit organization — which together make up 8-10 percent of the province’s GDP.  More than 7000 of these “social economy” enterprises ring up $17 billion in annual sales and hold $40 billion in assets (Canadian dollars).  They account for about 215,000 jobs across Quebec.

Quebec’s social economy (also translated as “solidarity economy”) extends far beyond the province’s two major cities, and includes manufacturing, agricultural cooperatives, daycare centers, homecare services, affordable housing, social service initiatives, food coops, ecotourism, arts programs, public markets, media and funeral homes. The capital that fuels all this economic activity comes from union pension funds, non-profit loan funds, credit unions, government investment, and philanthropy.

“We always say the social economy is simply the formalization of the commons. It’s social ownership, the goal of which is a sustainable, democratic economy with a market — instead of a market economy,” explains Nancy Neamtan, co-founder of Chantier de l’Economie Sociale, a network of social economy organizations whose anniversary banquet is described above. “Our mission is building a broader vision of what the economy actually is.”

“When Chantier started out, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work. We had unions, women’s organizations, green groups, and many thought it was too diverse,” Neamtan says. “But it does work.” Evidence for her assertion is visible all around — Chantier’s office is tucked into a six story building that takes up most of a city block, all of which is filled with social economy organizations. 

Not all of these social businesses are new — some of the credit unions, cooperatives and union pension funds go back a hundred years. “But they were largely invisible to many people until the name social economy became popular,” Neamtan adds.

Quebec’s social economy ranges from a video game creator’s cooperative to a social integration program for Haitian immigrants to a coop grocery in a remote town on the Gaspe peninsula to a network of 8000 home healthcare workers, half of whom were on welfare before being trained for the field.  Here are more examples showing the range of these enterprises:

Groupe Paradoxe

Chantier de l’Economie Sociale’s 20th Anniversary celebration was staged in a renovated church run by Groupe Paradoxe, which teaches at-risk young people job skills in the booming audio-visual presentation, events and meetings industries. 

Desjardins Group

The banker honored for his work at Chantier’s banquet was former president of the Desjardins credit union, founded in 1900 and today the province’s largest financial institution.

The Nitaskinam Cooperative

Also on hand at the banquet was Nitaskinam, an Inuit-run cooperative which designs clothing inspired by art of the Atikamekw people, which has doubled from three to six members in its first year. “The social economy is our traditional economic model and fits with our values,” explains co-founder Karine Awashish, who is also an economic development official of this tribal nation. “I see good opportunities for us to create new social economy jobs in forestry, health services, tourism, arts festivals and youth projects.”

UTILE Student Housing Cooperative

One of the youngest entrepreneurs at the banquet, Laurent Levesque, helped launch a student housing development organization with other activists involved in the headline-grabbing 2012 Quebec Student Strike, collaborating with Chantier de l’économie Trust.  “Students pay 70-80 percent more in rent on average,” he explained, “which creates an inflationary spiral” that hurts not just them, but their low-income neighbors.  With start-up capital from the Concordia Student Union and further funding from social economy partners like Desjardins and the province of Quebec, UTILE is set to break ground on apartments for 160 students.

Technopole Angus

It’s no coincidence that that the Desjardins credit union has a branch in the new Technopole Angus sustainable urban village, which brings opportunities to a working class neighborhood that was rocked when the Canadian Pacific Railway shuttered its machine shops in 1992.  A number of historic brick structures were repurposed, and new eco-friendly buildings constructed, with more planned for the project’s phase II.  The community will eventually include 500 affordable housing units, 450,000 square-feet of office space, 20 local shops, four public squares, a bike-pedestrian main street and a one-acre urban farm growing organic produce.

Recylage Vanier

A non-profit organization started 30 years ago by two out-of-work men who realized the recycling industry could benefit the disadvantaged as well as the earth, Recylage Vanier offers training for people struggling to find work because of low job skills, recent immigration, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, or other challenges. Jobseekers arrive here for a 24-week program that emphasizes work readiness and life skills as well as on-the-job experience.  Most are long-term unemployed, who have been sent by the Quebec employment bureau and social service groups.

“They have to get along with a boss, get along with colleagues, master simple tasks and then take on new ones with more responsibility, all the way up to driving a forklift,” says Nicolas Reeves, one of Vanier’s managers.  For the final four weeks, they split their time between the recycling plant and job hunting with the help of staff counselors. About 85 percent of graduates find work, and 10 percent seek further education, according to Reeves. Recylage Vanier faces stiff competition from two private companies in the field, so clients who value the organization’s mission are important to their success — including the province of Quebec, which provides about half their business.

Cinema Beaubien

This is non-profit neighborhood moviehouse explicitly proclaims its mission to “defend the primacy of persons and labor over capital in the distribution of its surpluses and incomes.”  The cinema’s importance as a community gathering spot can be witnessed in the long lines at the ticket booth, where patrons merrily chat with one another rather than staring at their phones. Taxis wait across the streets to whisk moviegoers to their next destination, about half of which are from the Taxi Coop Montreal.  (In Quebec City, all taxi drivers belong to a cooperative.)

La Barberie Cooperative Microbrewery

Operating as a worker cooperative for the past 20 years explains the success of this brewery and brewpub, says general manager Jean-Francois Genest, who joined La Barberie three years ago after running his family’s bookstore and later converting another bookstore into a cooperative. “The coop is a good plan to keep a place going. Sharing the profits means you attract the best workers. For our part, we try to make their jobs as interesting as possible, offer more holidays and higher pay.” Emilie DuMais, who’s tended bar here for eight years, notes, “You have much more ambition working for yourself than working for someone else.”

Le Monastere des Augustines

A convent dating back to 1700s in the heart of Quebec City’s walled city has just opened as an elegantly renovated hotel, spa, museum and conference center. It is organized as a non-profit in accordance with the social mission of nuns still living there to promote holistic health and spiritual renewal. Besides tourists, spa patrons and participants in corporate meetings, guests also include activist groups holding retreats and health care workers seeking a reprieve from the stress of their jobs.

RISQ

In 1997 Chantier created RISQ (Reseau d’Investissement Social du Quebec), which has invested $25 million in technical aid and capital for social economy businesses, resulting in: 1786 new jobs, 5,119 jobs maintained and job training for 1527 marginalized workers across Quebec, according to their calculations.  RISQ financial analyst Nathalie Villemure, who worked for many years in private banking, notes that they see fewer defaults than commercial lenders. “These people have a cause bigger than themselves, so they work harder and we help them find solutions.”

Fiducie

In 2007 Chantier launched Fiducie, a $50 million “patient capital” (or slow money) fund that provides long term, non-guaranteed loans of $50,000-1.5 million to promising cooperatives and non-profits with less than 200 employees. “We don’t expect to see anything in repayment for 15 years,” says General Manager Jacques Charest. Thirty million of the investment came from union pension funds with the rest from the federal and provincial governments.   

What We Can Learn from Quebec’s Social Economy

While Quebec possesses a distinct culture and history, the emergence of a strong social economy across the province provides practical lessons for other places. 

Recognize the Social Economy When You See It

Cooperatives and non-profit initiatives already exist throughout the US and most other countries, so the first step is seeing, naming and claiming the social economy as part of the commons we all share. 

Look Widely for Inspiration & Ideas

Neamtan points out that the American tradition of community organizing was a big influence on their early work, especially community development corporations (CDCs) that arose to tackle problems of disinvestment in urban neighborhoods. The Dudley Street Initiative, which transformed a low-income community in the Roxbury district of Boston, was a particular inspiration for her. The proliferation of cooperatives in the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain provided another model for bottom-up economic development.

Seek Solidarity

Social economy initiatives benefit from the longstanding sense of solidarity in Quebec, where French speakers were discriminated against and their local economy dominated by English-speaking Canadians, Americans and English.  A analogous situation can be found among racial and social minorities, and in rural and deindustrialized regions where economic power is wielded from outside.

Tap the Power of Government

Government agencies have been a partners and funders in many projects through the years. Social economy initiatives often arose even when conservative politicians were slashing government programs to provide a more humane alternative to strictly market-oriented development. Legislation passed by the left-center Parti Quebecois in 1997 gave the social economy movement a big boost by offering local governments more leeway in supporting community and cooperative efforts to create jobs and promote entrepreneurship.

Partner with Unions

“The labor movement boosted the social economy by making the choice in the 1980s not to just negotiate contracts but to create jobs and support civic enterprises,” explains Neamtan, which led to the creation of the landmark Quebec Solidarity Fund, an $11-billion-dollar pension fund, of which 65 percent is invested in small- and medium-sized Quebec-owned businesses.

Partner with Faith Organizations

Historically, the Catholic church controlled many aspects of life in the province, and priests enthusiastically promoted cooperatives and non-profit institutions as models of the church’s social teaching. By the end of the 20th century when the church’s influence waned in the face of increasing secularization, social economy organizations found numerous opportunities to set up shop in closed churches and convents.  The church remains an ally, Neamtan notes, “especially now that Pope Francis talks all the time about the Solidarity Economy.”

Photo Essay: Commemorative Journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Every year the Italian government organizes a commemorative train journey to Auschwitz in honor of the Italian Jews who were transported from the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence to Auschwitz for extermination, leaving from the same platform from which they left over 70 years ago, with special meetings with survivors of the concentration camp and visits to various camps and monuments.  This year I've been chosen along with other young Italian students to participate in this trip.

 

Stazione di Santa Maria Novella- 70 years ago the were piled on to the platforms to leave, terrified. Now we pile ourselves on, crushing, eager to leave.

 

 

Stopped at the border- dead of night, the mechanical beast rests on the border of two lands. The army in their mountaineering feathered hats patrol the snow covered platforms, then disappear into the night. It's all quiet on this front, except for the echoes of words over cigarettes. The sensation of movement, dull thudding. We're off again.

 

 

 

Buzzing yellow lights, strong non-Italian coffee and we are awake in Poland.

 

 

 

The scramble off the train and scramble onto the bus. A few minutes later we're there. Complete silence along a small concrete path. Fields of snow surround us, and the camp lies ahead.

 

 

 

Birkenau

 

 

As soon as we entered, the sun showed itself. We were lead through snow, sun and wind to the barracks: no more than shacks with shelves.

 

 

A moment of delirium, and then recognition of where we are. Underwhelmed is not the word, but realization that these gates are not evil made real, but made by man, human hands, with an upside down 'B', a personal rebellion, looked at by all, seen by few.

 

 

In every photo the expression was the same. Man, woman or child; dead or alive. A look of 'why' and 'when does it end.’

 

 

Their personal items now fill rooms, to remind us that they aren't just faces, names or videos.

 

 

Just outside the gates, snow spinning through the letters of 'Arbeit Macht Frei', two 'gonfalonieri' stand, not wearing the best outfit for a concentration camp in winter, holding the Tuscan flag, wary of the cameras, enjoying the moment but aware of the gravity of where they are. It doesn't matter what event Tuscany organises, the 'gonfalonier'i are there.

 

 

The flow of students comes to a stop just outside a small gate, waiting to enter the small courtyard where an innumerable quantity of people were killed by firing squad.

 

 

A moment to remember.

 

 

The wavy and worn edges of a book: a list holding the name of every person who died at Auschwitz.

 

 

Gas chambers- claw marks on the walls. our shadows and theirs. No light, despair.

 

 

 Arrested and imprisoned in Mauthausen at 14, Marcello Martini watches a fellow survivor of the nazi death camps tell his story of survival in Auschwitz.

 

 

Other survivors watch from the audience (Antonio Ciseri, Tatiana and Andra Bucci, Vera Michelin Salomon.)

 

 

Antonio Ceseri and Marcello Martini tell their stories in front of hundreds of Italian students in a cinema in Krakow, all there to hear their stories.

What Your Zip Code Says About Your Health

Park
Photo by Fotolia/pootsonnaja

Tapping the power of place to keep us all healthy.

One number stands above all others as the best indicator of good health.  It’s not your blood pressure, cholesterol level, average daily calories or even the age at which your grandparents die.  It’s your zip code.

This fact has sent shockwaves across the county.  The chief aspiration of American democracy is that everyone deserves an equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Yet medical evidence shows that people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods face greater health and mortality risks.

“That should not be…. All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community,” says Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement and a professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University.

“Health disparities don’t just happen by accident,” he declared at the 2nd National Walking Summit, accentuating his point with a series of maps showing that high levels of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and obesity correlate strongly with low-income neighborhoods and those with a history of racial segregation.

Dr. Anthony Iton, former health commissioner in Alameda County, California, (which includes inner city Oakland and wealthy suburbs) notes: “we have areas where people live shorter lives, substantially shorter — 20 years shorter than in other areas.”

The Case for Healthy Places report just released by Project for Public Spaces (with support from Kaiser Permanente and Anne T. and Robert M. Bass) chronicles this stark contrast in health outcomes across the nation.

“Numerous studies have explored how differences in the design and function of low and high-income neighborhoods contribute to health disparities,” the report states.  “Research shows that low-income groups and racial and ethnic minorities have more limited access to well-maintained parks or safe recreational facilities …These areas are also significantly more likely to lack access to supermarkets and places to obtain healthy, fresh food.”

The good news here is that we can do something about this problem.

 “If you have parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and wide sidewalks, you have good health outcomes,” explains Ron Simms, a neighborhood activist in Seattle’s African-American community and former Deputy Secretary of  HUD, who commissioned some of the first research identifying zip codes as a critical determinant of good health as chief executive of King County, Washington.

This is the central message of The Case for Healthy Places, which maps out a common sense solution known as placemaking. It’s collaborative blueprint for improving health in all communities by strengthening and reimagining the public realm — those gathering spots, local institutions and other places where we come together as neighbors, friends and citizens.

“Placemaking is one of the most powerful things we can do to address physical and mental health as well as revitalize democracy and add more conviviality to our lives,” explains Tyler Norris, Vice President of Total Health Partnerships at Kaiser Permanente. “It supplies us with a sense of belonging, which creates resilience and well-being, according to scientific evidence.”

“Heightened bliss is what happens in a public space,” adds Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces. “We seek them out — even if it’s just an interesting street corner — because we know it’s good for us. It calms and relaxes you, like meditation. You can feel your blood pressure go down.”

Just 10 to 20 percent of a person’s health condition is attributable to the access and quality of health care services.  More than 40 percent is due to social and economic factors in our lives and community, 30 percent to individual behaviors shaped in part by the neighborhoods we inhabit, and 10 percent to the physical environment around us, according to a 2016 study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The Case for Healthy Communities details the accumulating medical knowledge about the importance of place on our health and offers well-proven strategies, practical steps and real-world success stories in these five target areas:

1. Social Support & Interaction

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam popularized the concept of social capital in his book Bowling Alone, which documented how the social and economic health of a community depends on people working together in organizations, volunteer projects and other personal networks (symbolized by bowling leagues). High levels of social capital also correlate with lower mortality rates, according to research by the Harvard School of Public Health. A Harvard study shows that socially disconnected people are two to five times more likely to die from a variety of causes than those with strong ties to family, friends and neighbors.

In light of this evidence, it’s disturbing that only 20 percent of Americans regularly spend time with their neighbors and that the number of Americans who report having no one to turn to in times of crisis tripled between 1985 and 2004.

The value of public spaces to boost physical and mental health as well as reduce stress has been well-documented. A study in Miami’s East Little Havana neighborhood found that architectural features such as front porches that stimulate social interaction reduces levels of psychological distress while features that inhibit interaction, such as parking on the ground floor, instill feelings of isolation and unease in subjects.

Public space restoration projects in three lower- or middle-income Portland neighborhoods resulted in statistically significant improvements in social capital and lower incidences of depression.

2. Play & Active Recreation

Parks, playgrounds and ballfields are literal common ground — places where people of all socio-economic backgrounds and personal beliefs can meet, interact, and get to know each other better. It is hard to fear, hate, dismiss or ignore people you’ve scrimmaged in basketball, crossed paths with on a bike trail or watched your kids swoosh down a slide together.

They are also essential for our health.  The Centers for Disease Control and the Surgeon General’s office both prescribe 22 to 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week — and double that for kids.  And the easiest way to do that for most of us is at a nearby park or playground — it’s close, free and open to all.

A 2008 Canadian study found that kids living less than 2/3 of a mile from a park with a playground were more than five times as likely to be a healthy weight than ones who didn’t. An American study found that children living in disadvantaged communities were twice as likely to not enjoy convenient access to a park.

But the benefits of active recreation extend to all age groups.  You enjoy reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease through regular physical activity.

In Phoenix, the city’s FitPHX project has partnered with Phoenix Children’s Hospital to encourage families to become more active by marking walking routes in parks, which have been outfitted for geo-caching games (a high-tech treasure hunt) for both English and Spanish speakers.

When Oklahoma City was named as the “#2 Fattest City” in America by Men’s Health magazine, Republican mayor Mick Cornett rallied the city to do something about it. An $18-million sidewalk improvement fund was approved by voters as part of a tax increase that also included money for parks, bike trails and senior wellness centers around town. Oklahoma City has now added hundreds of miles of new sidewalks, built eight miles of bike lanes on the streets (there were none before), added 100 more miles to the recreational trail network, built new gyms at many public schools and created a public rowing center on the Oklahoma River.  Low-income neighborhoods, where health and obesity issues are most severe, are the biggest focus of the city’s programs for active living and healthy eating.

3. Green & Natural Environments

We’ve always known going outdoors into nature is a boost for our creativity, peace of mind and overall happiness.  Now we know it’s critical for our physical and mental health too. Mounds of recent medical studies chart the health benefits of parks, gardens and wild areas on ailments ranging from asthma, PTSD and diabetes to ADHD, depression and dementia. Even people not suffering from any particular condition notice improvements in memory, mental well-being and overall health indicators.

Research in Philadelphia found that neighborhoods where vacant lots were turned into gardens saw a drop in violent crime, according to an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.  

St. Paul’s newest park — 13 acres of in the poorest and most ethnically diverse corner of the city — exists because neighborhood activists worked tirelessly to ensure that the site of a 19th century home for wayward girls was not walled off by private developers. Residents went door-to-door asking everyone what they wanted to see in a new park. With the support of the Trust for Public Land, they are now carrying out a vision for a unique public space featuring an amphitheater, playground, farm plots, greenhouse and arts programs.

4. Healthy Food

The power of place can make a significant impact on people’s eating habits. 

Studies in Seattle, California and New York City found that neighborhoods with numerous stores and restaurants offering wholesome food enjoyed lower obesity rates than neighborhood that did not — even accounting for factors such as income and education levels.

While it’s often difficult to attract grocery chains or nutritious restaurants to lower-income food deserts, research shows that small-scale farmers’ markets and community gardens can positively influence eating habits.

When two farmers’ markets opened in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, 97 percent of patrons at one market were eating more vegetables and fruit, and 98 percent at the other, according to a study published in the Journal of Community Health.

In Denver, a study showed that 56 percent of community gardeners ate recommended five servings of vegetables and fruit a day compared to 37 percent of home gardeners and 25 percent of non-gardeners, according to USDA research.

Little-town-on the-prairie Albert Lea, Minnesota (pop. 18,000) is determined to prove that healthy lifestyles are not just a big-city thing. They’ve adopted a community-wide wellness campaign called Blue Zones, based on the work of National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner. About 40 percent of all adults in town have joined exercise and healthy eating programs, along with nearly all schoolkids in grades K-12. One-third of locally owned restaurants, all school concession stands, and one large supermarket now offer new nutritious meal options. Blue zones participants have collectively shed more than six tons of weight.

5. Walking & Biking

Walking is such a great way to stay healthy that US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a special Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities last fall.

“Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy said. “That is why we need to step it up as a country ensuring that everyone can choose to walk in their own communities. Physical activity should not be the privilege of the few. It should be the right of everyone.”

The landmark report is based on definitive medical evidence that moderate physical exercise cuts your chances of diabetes, dementia, depression, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and high blood pressure by 40 percent or more.

A major study released this year shows that lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity, according to Cambridge University researchers who studied more than 300,000 people over 12 years.  Another new groundbreaking study conducted over 50 years shows low levels of physical activity are more lethal than high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other closely-watched medical conditions.

Biking offers nearly the same health, economic and social benefits, although far fewer people bike today than walk — a situation that is being remedied by the widespread introduction of safer,  more comfortable bike facilities such as protected bicycle lanes, special bike boulevards, better-connected networks of bikeways across communities and safer accommodation of bike riders at busy intersections.

Communities that encourage biking and walking are more healthy, vital places where people naturally want to live, work, shop and play. The American Planning Association recommends nine placemaking features to create these kind of strong, lively communities:

  1. Sidewalks
  2. Bicycle improvements, such as designated lanes and bike racks
  3. Traffic calming improvements, such as traffic circles and median islands in streets
  4. Crosswalks and walk and bike signals
  5. Aesthetic improvements, such as public art and fountains
  6. Public spaces, such as plazas and parks
  7. Street trees
  8. Green infrastructure, such as greenways and rain gardens
  9. Street furniture, such as benches, bus shelters and good signage

Health professionals, clinics, hospitals, insurance companies, medical schools, health care companies, public health agencies, non-profit organizations and research institutes in the field  have important roles to play in promoting healthy placemaking projects. “By utilizing their facilities, land, funding capacity, employees, political power and other resources, the healthcare sector and its civic partners have a special opportunity to promote health and well-being in their communities,” say authors of The Case for Health Communities.


Jay Walljasper writes, consults and speaks widely about how to make communities more healthy, equitable, sustainable and enjoyable.

How to Make City Streets More Friendly

Laughter, lively music and lip-smacking appreciation of food from many cultures animates St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota as a crowd whoops it up at the Better Bridges Bash.

Even chilly temperatures and gusty winds can’t dampen folks’ enthusiasm—nor does the unpromising location right next to the roaring traffic on the I-94 freeway. Indeed, that’s the point of the event: to better connect neighborhoods on either side of the freeway by improving the bridges and to explore ways to make the area more friendly to people when they are not in cars.

This is why—in addition to enjoying a kazoo parade, a Liberian-American rapper and the Lexington-Hamline Community Band—festival goers wander into tents where they are encouraged to think expansively about their neighborhood’s future.

“We’re seeing that this community is engaged in how the streets feel, and they are letting local leaders know what they want,” offers Isaak Rooble, who is standing next to a gallery of photos showing possible improvement projects for this mixed-income, mixed-race community. People stick green post-its to ones they like; pink ones to those they don’t; and yellow for maybe.

Among the photos generating the most excitement are:

• A land bridge covering a section of the freeway with green space;

• Archways, mosaics and murals at entrances to bridges over the freeway;

• Medians in the middle of busy intersections making it easier for people to cross the street; At another tent, people are invited to share their own brainstorms for the neighborhood on an Idea Tree. Here are a few of the brainstorms:

• “less cars”

• “fountains”

• “walking path and track”

• “more street parties”

“I am passionate about community development and helping migrants get involved with the community,” says Isaak Rooble, a young Somali immigrant working with Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI), the organization hosting the event.

FSI is conducting surveys with as many people as possible in English, Somali, and Oromo (a language spoken in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya) to learn more about issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the freeway. This is part of the organization’s “community-led mission,” which means “we are guided by the ideas coming out of neighborhoods,” explains Robyn Hendrix, an artist organizer with the group.

Walking 

On the Streets Where We Live

The Friendly Streets Initiative grew out of a group of volunteers working with various neighborhood organizations to make biking and walking safer in St. Paul. In the summer of 2011, they sponsored a series of parties along Charles Avenue which runs through a racially- and economically-mixed community a few blocks from the freeway to discuss community concerns. The group created a survey to measure residents’ opinions and offered a photo gallery of innovative street designs found around the world.

Closing off  blocks on Friday evenings, the parties featured food from local restaurants, games, and the opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other better. “More than 700 people turned out and we got a real sense of what the community thought,” recalls Lars Christiansen, an urban sociologist at Augsburg College who lives in the neighborhood and is now FSI Director. “What they liked and what they didn’t.”

The ideas folks liked most became the nucleus of the Charles Avenue Friendly Street plan, which emphasized four street improvements:

1. Better-marked crosswalks at busy intersections;

2. Traffic circles, which help slow the speed of vehicles at low-volume intersections;

3. Medians and other modifications at busy intersections, which provide refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street;

4. A raised intersection, and sidewalks bumping out into the streets at select locations.

The volunteer committee formally organized themselves as the Friendly Streets Initiative to build support for the Charles Avenue project among neighbors and on the city council. Construction on Charles Avenue began in 2014 along a four-mile stretch of the street.

“FSI built grassroots support for change in St. Paul, a city reputed to have lots of opposition to bike and walk projects,” observed Jessica Treat, director of Transit for Livable Communities in an interview earlier this year. Since then TLC has become FSI’s fiscal sponsor.

Treat credits FSI with mobilizing young families and other groups in the city who don’t usually weigh in on planning decisions, which showed political leaders the depth of public support for walk and bike projects.

Council Member Russ Stark, whose ward contains a section of the project, notes that FSI has changed how business is done in St. Paul. “By talking to people where they live, by using block parties and other means to find out what people value on their streets, they’ve helped change how we do civic engagement. We usually hear from a vocal minority on projects, but we don’t necessarily know what the public as a whole thinks.”

All Over Town

One of FSI’s major pushes now is a project coming out of the Better Bridges Bash to create better bike, foot and transit access in neighborhoods on either side of the I-94 in between the Capitol and the Minneapolis city limits.  This includes Rondo, the historical African-American neighborhood where photographer Gordon Parks and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins grew up, much of which was bulldozed in the 1960s to construct the freeway.

“It was a beloved community,” says Melvin Giles, FSI community organizer, who remembers Rondo as a young child. “People would walk to the neighborhood store and kids could see all the others kids. They’d play baseball and football in the street. You couldn’t do those things today.”

What was once Rondo is probably the worst place in St. Paul to walk today, with a freeway ripping through the middle of the area and bridges that feel dangerous and dispiriting to cross.

“They seemed not to care a lot about poor kids and African American kids getting to school, or anywhere else, when they built the freeway,” remarks Anne Parker, an artist working with FSI who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.

Conditions are grim on many of St. Paul’s I-94 bridges. Many walkers endure sidewalks so narrow that they must scrunch together to walk side-by-side, and switch to single-file if any other walker needs to pass.

Better Bridges Make Better Communities

 “A lot of outside groups who want to help the neighborhood just come in and start doing stuff—FSI did not do that,” says Melvin Giles, explaining why he joined the group. “As an organization we help the community decide what it wants by offering a process for people to think about what they want from their streets—and then we will work with them.”

Giles helped convene a series of listening sessions with elders and leaders in the African American community. “FSI is not doing things for us; it’s doing things with us,” he says. “It’s not just community engagement. FSI shows you how to turn your ideas into reality.”

One of the community leaders Giles contacted is Marvin Roger Anderson, a retired attorney and former Minnesota State law librarian. “Encouraging bicycling and walking are important to reweaving the Rondo neighborhood, so I am delighted to be working with Friendly Streets,” Anderson says. “Biking and walking are healthy. Biking and walking can save you money. We need to create a culture of biking and walking.”

The long-term goals of the project are to call on the community’s expertise and creativity to inspire fresh thinking about transforming these bridges from barriers into connectors between neighborhoods. Planned reconstruction of the freeway offers opportunities for big ideas that stir excitement in the community. Ranking high among the ideas proposed: a land bridge, wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes, bike lanes, better winter maintenance, greater attention to disabled users, traffic calming, making it feel more like a public space, and adding a cultural wall to celebrate the history and art of the Rondo community.

In the short term, FSI wants to tap community expertise and creativity for ideas on improving existing bridges. “The whole point of FSI is to transform streets of fear into streets of joy, in ways both large and small, affecting the physical environment and the emotional one,” says Christiansen.

Here are the chief lesson’s of Friendly Streets Success, which can be applied in other communities around the country.

Rethink Community Engagement

It’s no longer good enough to simply present neighborhood people with a plan, and ask them to approve it. Residents are the world’s leading authorities on what their communities need. They must be involved in the planning of a project from the very start. Their ideas and goals must be given serious consideration every step of the way.

Show How New Ideas Work

Installing temporary prototypes of proposed improvements lets everyone get a feel for how well they work. It can dispel unwarranted fears and reveal potential problems.

Recognize How Things are Connected

Social, economic, cultural and psychological issues are all linked. A better sidewalk or walking trail can boost economic opportunity, racial inclusion and community aspirations as well as transportation. When you understand all that is at play with a given project, you’ll get more successful outcomes for everyone.

Take Art Seriously

Art is not a frill—it’s indispensible in helping everyone reimagine their communities, and discovering new approaches to old problems. “Asking people to draw or paint or act out what they would like to see in their neighborhood allows everyone to think differently and find new inspiration,” notes Robyn Hendrix, arts organizer for the Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI) from 2014 to 2016. “The arts activities brought kids and families out, and created a festival quality that also drew more low-income people and people of color,” adds FSI director Lars Christiansen.

Work with the Community

Find out who are the leaders, which may not be who you expect. Learn about neighborhood concerns. Speak their language (literally and figuratively). Listen.

Be Flexible

No community visioning method is universal. What works in one place may flounder just a few blocks away. Discover the tools the community itself uses.

Make it Fun

“A feeling of festivity, levity and wonder enliven the conversations about public spaces,” concludes Christiansen. “You need a sense of play in everything you do.” FSI events have included mini-golf, living statues, chalk drawing, flagmaking and lots of music and food.

This is excerpted from the new book, America’s Walking Renaissance, which can downloaded free as a PDF. Author of The Great Neighborhood Book, Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to improve communities of all kinds.

Photo by ViewApart/Fotolia

No Matter What We Possess In Life, In the End All That We Have Is Time

It's Tuesday evening in Rieti and locals and regular visitors stop in the bars for a sparkling aperitivo. In the hilltown piazze, their children make friends with the Pomeranians, Bichon Frizes and spaniels who've escaped, with their owners, from Rome in August.

Amatrice is in festa. And so are these families. The light is changing, the nights are cool, the conkers are about to split their spiky reptile-green pods, there's a hint of orange in the leaves of the tigli. Which means one thing: school.

Italian earthquake 

A woman and child sit on a bench in the center of Amatrice, Italy, in the wake of the August 2016 earthquake. (Photo by Getty Images/Carl Court)
 

The writer Elena Ferrante isn't kidding. In Italy, school is gruelling, operatic. And it starts in three weeks. Along the peninsula, kids are rushing to finish their summer homework, cursing chemistry, sweating over Greek verses, looking up the web, hopelessly, for hacks, buying homework diaries in glossy black, pastel or neon. Since there is no half-term, this is the last good break until Christmas. Families are making the most of it.

But as the men and women sip their cold, glittering Negroni, Campari or Aperol Spritz, and their sons and daughters in their Converse and shorts and fake tattoos and plastic chokers play with the Roman toy dogs, Death invisible has arrived and is marking them out. She looks north to Accumoli, nods here, smiles there, cups a small warm head at the level of her cold hand. She passes the Hotel Roma with a sweep of her arm. The marketing video ignored her when promising "precious contact with nature".

So, the men and women finish their drinks, head home or out for a pizza, stroll with their ice cream, kiss the children goodnight. All of it for the last time. Within hours, a 6.2 magnitude quake will dismantle the Apennines. And with them, the families, their happiness and futures.

In Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata del Tronto, Pescara del Tronto, life will be classified now into Before and After 03.36 on August 24, 2016. The rough latitude 42 and longitude 13 were not alone the co-ordinates of their lives, they were concealing death and what will pass now for a life thereafter.

I know the Rieti mountains. With no head for heights I dread the road from Terni that, kilometre after kilometre, shrinks the regional hydroelectric plant to the size of a light-up stove for a Sylvanian Family cottage. Heart in mouth, I inch around bends that play chicken with the sky. Across the province, hamlets cling like Hitchcock blondes to the edges of cliffs, the sides of vertiginous mountains.

My friend has a summer villa there designed to be earthquake-proof. This week he calls it his 007 place: shaken, not stirred. In his village, around 30km south of the epicentre, the news is good. Everyone is safe.

But in Amatrice, where the village clock has stopped at the time of the earthquake, nobody is safe. Everything, every life, is ruined.

In the night, invisible armies have swept through, pounding it from the ground, the air. In this Mediterranean Dresden, three elderly people sit on a terrace at a white plastic table with a pink umbrella. Rescuers call out to them. Their home, exposed, is like a dollshouse where you can take the side off to see into the rooms. It is an island in an ocean of rubble. They are its sole inhabitants.

In Accumoli, such is the damage even to remaining structures, every house is off-limits. Apart from the volunteers, rescue teams and media, it is not even a ghost town - its soul is taken.

For the emergency services, though, the opposite is the case. If you are fated to live through a disaster, Italy is the place to do it. Yes, there is criticism of the delays in getting help to places such as Illica but generally the Italian response to a crisis of such magnitude is magnificent. While the rest of Italy is fleeing disaster, the rescuers are racing, with a plan, towards it.

Before dawn last Wednesday local people dug with bare hands through the masonry, calling out to family, neighbours, listening for voices, phones, under rubble that revealed itself as apocalyptic in the dawn.

All day and every day since, the same local people call out "Dai! Dai!" - meaning, "Come on! You're doing it!" - to the men and women of the Vigili del Fuoco lifting the barely living, grey and dusty from mountains of cement.

Parents, children, wives, husbands, siblings who see bodies of their beloveds removed, are silent. Speechless. In this hell that was their home, or the place they came every year for their holidays, they see the Vigili working miracles. But can anyone ask them to raise the dead?

It's a time of certainty, uncertainty, questions. In those last moments when a grandmother shoves her grandchildren under their beds and saves their lives, or families find themselves separated, entombed, or thrown out windows, we can probably say for sure that none of them is thinking about work, the mortgage, the bank loan, or wondering how the neighbours manage the new car, the extension.

Chances are a woman who sees her children disappear into rubble and eternity isn't fuming about the savage sexism of a road-race sign reading, "Run like you've left the immersion on".

A teenager calling for her dad isn't seething about the man who opened the door for her at the restaurant the previous night, 'reducing' her as a woman. The gobshite thought he was being polite.

A man digging with his bare hands for his wife of 50 years isn't cursing that bollox next door who cuts their climbing roses on his side of the party wall and throws the clippings into their garden.

A teenage boy tunnelling for his sister and mother isn't thinking, "Christ, I didn't get my first choice" from the Italian equivalent of the CAO.

A young man scrambling through bricks to get at his father isn't smiling; "that'll teach him". But more likely, "Dad, why didn't I talk to you for the last five years".

Twenty years ago when I started the most important job I will ever do - being a mother - I decided I wouldn't lavish my children with things. Instead, I would invest in experience. So they never got the Playstation, the iPod, the Xbox, the new game at the same time as their pals. But for free they got baking, gardening, crab fishing, fox feeding, bird saving, jam making, the first day of the Luas, mindmaps of the stars.

When I could manage it, they had trips, concerts, theatres, exhibitions, family meals out, hotels, days and weekends away. Things could be lost, stolen, broken. But an experience was forever. It was always theirs to be relived.

On Wednesday, the people of central Italy lost everything in a blink. The roof over their head, everything they owned - worked for.

There are questions of poor or illegal building, the legacy of Italy's lax planning laws. All for another time. For now, proverbially, those who lost their homes and parents, lost their past. Those who lost their children, lost their future. They found perspective.

In a world where trash seems to fascinate us more - where we seem primed for fights or slights, where it's easy to take and express offence, not alone for ourselves, but on behalf of others - events like the earthquake give perspective.

No matter what we possess, in the end all we have on this earth is our time. We are. And in a single moment we will cease to be.

For the people of Rieti, it was 03.36, August 24, 2016.

But somewhere on that clockface in Amatrice and in the collected dates and days of the kitchen calendars and assorted technology buried under the rubble, is our moment.

Until Death, invisible, slips her cold hand in ours, how will we be? What will we do?


Originally published in The Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest-selling newspaper.

Walking Makes Strides in All Kinds of Communities

Imagine living in one of America’s great walkable communities.

Your day begins with a stroll—saying hi to neighbors, noticing blooming gardens and enticing shop windows, maybe stopping for a treat on your way to work.

Weekends are even better. You step out your door and join the hum of activity on the sidewalk en route to a coffeeshop, park, shopping district, friend’s home, recreation center or house of worship.

More time on your feet provides an opportunity to reflect on your life (you feel more energetic and creative now that you’re not driving all the time) and your community (it feels more alive now that everyone walks more). Even driving is more fun than it used to be with fewer cars clogging the streets.

And the really good news is that you don’t need to move to another town or a more expensive neighborhood to enjoy these pleasures. Any community can become more walkable if people are willing to get off the couch to make a difference.

That’s what my colleagues and I at the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks discovered researching our new book America’s Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded here for free.

Seattle Walk 

Feet on the Street, Coast-to-Coast

We found inspiring stories from places across the US where people got things started in communities not so different from where you live.

• In Baldwin Park, a racially diverse suburb of LA, high levels of childhood obesity are dropping as the result of a community-wide effort to make walking more safe and comfortable.

• In Batesville, Arkansas, and Albert Lea, Minnesota, improvements to boost walking around town are paying off in new residents, businesses and hope for the future.

• In Birmingham, a growing network of walking trails helps address problems arising from decades of economic decline, racial inequity and declining public health.

• In Arlington, Virginia, an innovative plan to transform neighborhoods into foot-friendly villages made it America’s Most Walkable Suburb.

• In Phoenix, ambitious programs to encourage walking are part of a push to become America’s healthiest city.

• In St. Paul, a multicultural community torn apart by freeway construction seeks revival and healing through better pedestrian connections.

• In San Francisco and New York, neighbors are teaming up with public leaders to end all traffic deaths on city streets.

• In Northeast Iowa, small town kids are growing excited about walking to and at school.

• In Seattle, groundbreaking policies curb speeding motorists and prevent traffic crashes.

• In African-American communities coast-to-coast, GirlTrek encourages women to take charge of their health by walking regularly.

• In California’s Central Valley, Latino parents are organizing campaigns to make streets hospitable for people on foot.

• In Indianapolis, leaders from around the world study the Cultural Trail, a 21st century walk-and-bike corridor that has reinvigorated struggling business districts.

• In Greater Philadelphia, a network of bike/walk trails link the entire region—300 miles so far with 450 more planned.

• Even in Oklahoma City, once named America’s “Worst Walking City”, big plans are working to make walking easier, less dangerous and more fun.

Why is Walking Suddenly Popular?

Improvements like these are popping up all over because Americans want to get back on their feet—for better health, stronger communities and happier, more relaxing lives.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found the number of people who regularly walk rose six percent between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available), a jump which translates into 20 million Americans stepping up.

But we still have a long ways to go. Only 48 percent of adults met the CDC’s minimum daily recommendation for walking or other physical activity: 30 minutes a day five days a week (60 minutes daily for kids).

That’s the magic number that cuts your chances of suffering from depression, dementia, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, anxiety, high blood pressure and other serious diseases by 40 percent or more. The American Heart Association lauds walking as the exercise people stick with the most over time. It’s free, requires no special equipment and can be done anytime, usually right out your front door.

Last year, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy singled out walking as a powerful health solution in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. “Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy declared. “The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”

The rise in walking for recreation, transportation and exercise is also being fueled by new research showing it’s good for us in many ways besides better health:

• Going out for a walk is one of the best ways to meet people and strengthen community connections, which is fun but also boosts our mental and physical health.

• Kids who walk to school do better in their classes, according to Mary Pat King, the National PTA’s Director of Programs and Partnerships. Walking improves students’ concentration, mood, cognitive performance and creativity, explains Dr. Richard Jackson, former Environmental Health Director of the US Centers for Disease Control.

• Metropolitan regions with many walkable neighborhoods perform better economically than those with just a few, according to a new report from the George Washington University School of Business.

• Reduced anger, increased self-control and a greater sense of well-being are other documented benefits of walking , according to 100 Reasons to Walk, issued by Walk with a Doc, an organization of physicians working in 29 states.

Signs of the Times

You don’t have to look far to see signs that Americans are rediscovering the joy of walking.

Real Simple magazine declared it “America’s untrendiest trend” in a cover story.

• Soul Singer Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video, which highlights the sheer pleasure of strolling down the street, has been watched 850 million times.

• A recent national poll from the National Association of Realtors finds that 79 percent of Americans believe it’s important to live “within an easy walk” of the places they want to go.

• Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has announced an all-out effort to make walking safer in communities everywhere. “Bicycling and walking are as important as any other form of transportation,” he declared at a major transportation conference.

• More than 10 percent of all trips in America are on foot, according to Paul Heberling, Policy Analyst at the US Department of Transportation—and 28 percent of all trips under a mile.

Everybody Has a Right to Walk

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared Dr. Robert D. Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement in a keynote speech at the National Walking Summit in Washington, D.C. “All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”

Yet it is a stark fact that children, older Americans, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities are injured or killed more frequently while walking (or rolling, in the case of people using wheelchairs or motorized carts).

• People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.

• African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.

• The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, crumbling sidewalks, street crime, poor lighting, or the lack of stores and public places within walking distance.

Poor conditions for walking among low-income households limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.

“A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one,” says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. He notes that the average cost of owning and operating one car is about $8,500 a year, even taking into account recent dips is gasoline prices.

The good news is that the right to walk is becoming a major issue, as advocates for social justice, public health, neighborhood revitalization and other causes push for policies to make walking safer and easier in communities all across America. In fact, Secretary of Transportation Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, has made it one of his top priorities with the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative.


Adapted from the book America's Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded for free.

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, writes, speaks and consuslts about how to create healthier, happier communities. He lives in Minneapolis and his website is JayWalljasper.com.