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Bostonians Talk the Walk

Obesity Issue(s): 
Physical Activity
Built Environment
People take a stroll in downtown Boston.
Photo Credit: 
dsearls

You’ve heard of Octoberfest. But what about Walktoberfest?

The nonprofit advocacy group Walk Boston recently led a walk from Boston to Cambridge. While participants enjoyed a few adult beverages during their trek, the main mission of the event was to show residents how easy and safe it is to move around the city.

“It’s really more getting people out to see how easy it is to walk around,” says Wendy Landman, executive director of Walk Boston. “Every way we can, we’re always sort of thinking about how we get this message out there.”

Since 1990, Walk Boston has dedicated itself to improving walking conditions in cities and towns across Massachusetts. While Walk Boston works with local policymakers, business leaders and professionals on pedestrian access projects, it also trains local residents to be advocates in their own neighborhoods.

Landman says her organization’s work is part of a larger mission to change the public’s perception about walking while also working on policy efforts to make it easier for folks to incorporate walking into their daily lives.

“We’re building a cohort of people who are interested in walkability that’s beyond the usual suspects. In some ways, we think of it as marketing walking,” says Landman, a PreventObesity.net Leader. 

Walk Boston often serves as a central meeting place for anyone interested in improving pedestrian access and walkability. For example, a few years back the organization held a meeting in their office with the state’s health commissioner and transportation secretary — and it was the first time the two agency heads had met to collaborate on policy, Landman says.

But because so much of the nonprofit’s work requires input at the community level, Walk Boston also works to educate community members about the benefits of walkability and then trains them to advocate for such projects in their neighborhoods.

During a pedestrian and bicycle access project in Boston about a year and a half ago, for example, city officials were worried about community pushback because parking spaces and pavement were being reduced in favor of bike lanes and sidewalks. Working alongside those officials, Walk Boston trained community members to be lead advocates for the project in their own neighborhoods to spread the word about the health benefits and other positive aspects of the project.

“The advocates really got excited and empowered through the training that they got,” Landman recalls. “It totally turned the conversation around in the communities. Instead of a lot of opposition, the complete street projects were welcomed.”

Walk Boston also often works with young people on advocacy efforts, Landman says, as staff teaches them about the things that make a walkable community, which could be as simple (and affordable) as trimming shrubs and painting crosswalks.

The students then take what they’ve learned and become advocates in their community, usually with positive results.

“It’s a great way to increase civic engagement in a way that’s an easy entry point. If kids are working on economic justice, that’s hard, that’s long,” Landman says. “Whereas, my crosswalk needs painted and my streetlight needs a new bulb… that’s stuff that actually happens.”

With many urban spaces and even suburban cities focused on walkability, Walk Boston also is turning its attention to improving pedestrian access in rural communities. Because so little has been done in rural areas, the organization is putting together a guide for these areas that simply explains how to begin.

Most often, communities wish to create pedestrian access to connect different destinations, such as the town hall, the library or the school. But there are unique challenges. Some rural communities lack sidewalks outside of their main street or town hall area. Older roads might not be ideal for walking, as many are surrounded by trees or historic stone walls that would make it difficult to build a sidewalk

To address this, some communities have created off-road pathways that help people walk safely. Others have gotten easements from property owners to create a walking space.

Walk Boston’s goal is to collect the best ideas and use them to help other rural areas. “We’re really excited. Communities until now weren’t thinking about this,” Landman says.

The organization also is working on ways to better collect data to show how often people actually walk.

Most people actually end up walking at some point their commute, for example. Transit riders often have to walk to and from their station or bus stop, while many drivers park in a lot and walk a few blocks to their office. But those commuters aren’t officially counted as walkers, and that often hinders the funding process for pedestrian projects.

“As one of our board members says, ‘if you aren’t counted you don’t count,’” Landman says.

And Walk Boston wants to change the conversation about walking from something that is purely health or researched-focused to one that really convinces people to walk — not because they should, but because they want to.

“A lot of the messaging that comes from all of us has ranged from earnest to cute, but not necessary super effective to reaching big chunks of the population,” she says. “I think that’s one thing we keep trying to learn… How to think about our messaging in a way that’s more effective, more compelling, more imbedded in the way we get people thinking about things.”

Click here to connect with Wendy Landman.

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