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Intern Perspectives | National Walking Summit Experiences

I attended the National Walking Summit on September 24 hosted by America Walks, a national nonprofit organization that offers resources to individuals and communities to help make places more accessible, equitable, and enjoyable to walk in. America Walks works with all levels of government and other organizations to train and support them in how to improve walkability in their communities, as well as increasing visibility and consumer demand. Taking place at the Hilton in downtown Columbus, the a one-day summit featured two breakout sessions, learning-from-place workshop, keynote session, and collective action planning. The two breakout sessions each featured five different sessions to pick from, ranging in topic from urban design to policy implementation.

Each session consisted of three speakers who gave short presentations about walkability efforts they’ve been involved in, followed by a group discussion. I attended the “Creating Creative Places,” which focused primarily on low-cost design efforts that enhance walkability, and the “From Policy to Practice: Policies and Programs to Support Active Transportation” sessions. The speakers in the latter included a civil engineer, a planner at MORPC, and a public health specialist who all discussed policy changes that can enhance and promote walkability. For example, MORPC has developed Gohio Commute, a web application that  shows users the various ways they can travel from one destination to another, including carpooling and vanpooling. The program also calculates how much CO2 each method will release in order to discourage driving alone, which generates more pollution than any other transportation method.

My favorite part of the day was the learning-from-place workshop, which was a walking tour of the Arena District led by two planners from MKSK, Chris Hermann and Karen McCoy. MKSK lead the urban design and development of the master plan, which was published in 2000. They paid great attention to detail to make it not only walkable, but also accessible and aesthetically pleasing, so that it’s a place people enjoy walking around. It also has its own unique identity with red brick buildings and streets while still flowing smoothly into downtown, which is a difficult balance to achieve. I found this workshop to be valuable as it showed me a local example of a well-planned area that puts people before vehicles – something many modern planning efforts fail to do.

Improving walkability is important to not only make walking more comfortable and accessible, but also to increase safety. The number of pedestrian deaths in the United States reached a 28-year high in 2018, representing a 4% increase from the previous year. Safety efforts have mainly focused on reducing fatalities among motorists, and many of the new residential and commercial developments being built are designed to accommodate cars without even including sidewalks or sufficient crosswalks. While cars are indeed the dominant form of travel in the US, walking will always be a key form of transportation, even if for many it is just the walk from a parking spot to a destination or walking for exercise. As I learned during this summit, there are a plethora of ways to enhance walkability ranging from inexpensive and short-term to cost-intensive and long-term that can significantly increase the safety of walking and, subsequently, reduce pedestrian fatalities.

“At the heart of every community, no matter its size, location, or demographics, are people. People give life to places, and when this is celebrated and supported, individuals, communities, and institutions flourish.”

This was a unique experience because it brought together like-minded individuals from all over Ohio and the country to discuss ways to improve communities through enhanced walkability. Whether it be simple design additions, policy changes, technology, or infrastructure improvements, there are a plethora of ways to improve walkability and, subsequently, quality of life. When it is efficient and pleasant to do so, people will often choose walking over other transportation modes; it allows one to enjoy their surroundings much more than faster-moving modes. When people can stop and smell the flowers and admire their surroundings during their commute, it can make a menial task much more enjoyable and beneficial for both their physical and mental health.

Annalise Bennett, Planning Intern


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