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How Resident Insights Improved One City’s Walkability Plans

By Phil Bors on May 16th, 2019

The walkable communities movement grew in response to concerns that the places we live in have become disconnected, and in many cases impossible to navigate safely by foot, wheelchair, or stroller. In the 2000s, a collective recognition emerged around the importance of mixed-use land development, safer human-scale streets, better public transportation, and accessible public spaces. This concept attracted advocates, community leaders, and professionals in urban planning, public health, architecture, community development, and conservation. Nearly two decades later, walkability now receives support from elected officials, land use planners, state and local public health agencies, and transportation departments of transportation (although walkability is still a much lower priority than highway infrastructure).

In 2015, Healthy Places by Design joined The National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create the Walkability Action Institute (WAI). This annual week-long course on walkable, equitable transportation systems was developed for interdisciplinary learning teams comprising public health, transportation, planning, elected officials, and other disciplines. The WAI training is a critical component of the CDC’s efforts to increase walkability alongside its Step It Up campaign. The course builds teams’ capacity to implement equitable policy, systems, and environmental changes to make their communities, regions, and states more walkable. Each WAI team formalizes what it learns by creating a detailed action plan to improve regional transportation systems in their communities.

One walkability team from Tacoma, WA, returned from the WAI in 2017 hoping to improve access and safety for people who already walk both by choice and necessity—and to encourage others to walk more. Team members from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Puget Sound Regional Council, Pierce County, the City of Tacoma, and Downtown on the Go organized walking audits and community meetings that brought together government officials, community leaders, advocates, and local institutions. The walkability team was encouraged as their effort grew from a small group into a broader Step It Up coalition.

However, many people in immigrant communities within Tacoma and Pierce County felt left out of the visioning process. Tacoma’s residents include Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Laotian, and Thai immigrants. Step It Up planners heard this concern from Golden Bamboo, a walking group of older Vietnamese-speaking residents, whose members said they felt excluded from traditional public planning processes. Many immigrants shared that they distrust government outreach in their home countries and may feel even more disconnected in the United States. Diane Evans, the health department’s health promotion coordinator and Step it Up team leader, explains, “We fall short with our engagement efforts because, without their lived experience, often we were just guessing about community members’ concerns. We have to change the way we work.”

“We fall short with our engagement efforts because, without their lived experience, often we were just guessing about community members’ concerns. We have to change the way we work.”

In response, the Step it Up team collaborated with Pierce Conservation District (PCD) to leverage a local Community Ambassador program in order to support their walkability action plans. PCD’s ambassadors literally speak the community’s language and have lived in many of Tacoma’s under-invested neighborhoods. The Golden Bamboo walking group leader and interpreter also transitioned into a formal position as Community Ambassador working for PCD. The ambassadors provide an invaluable service by:

  • Offering ideas for infusing equitable community engagement into walkability action steps;
  • Reviewing action plans and helping the Walkability Team assess the needs of populations most impacted; and
  • Sharing community events that team members attend to learn about residents’ cultures, and start building rapport with new community partners.

As the Step it Up planning team attended the WAI, connected with peers, learned from national experts, and began implementing “best practices” at home, they were also reminded how critical it is to find, listen to, and respond to their own resident experts. What they heard from residents informed steps that the City of Tacoma and Step it Up partners will take to prioritize low-income areas for pedestrian improvements and use crash data to prevent future injuries.

“When communities are built for all of us and with all of us in mind, nobody gets left out. I’ve learned that this work has to proactively make the effort to address unintended consequences of successful walkability efforts, so that we continually try to improve more than solely health by integrating place-based approaches, inclusion of all kinds, and working to improve social justice.”

Ultimately, processes to create safe and walkable communities are successful only when they combine traditional data sources with the experiences and perspectives of the people who walk and roll on those streets. As Karma Harris, NACDD’s Walkability and Healthy Communities Lead explains, “When communities are built for all of us and with all of us in mind, nobody gets left out. I’ve learned that this work has to proactively make the effort to address unintended consequences of successful walkability efforts, so that we continually try to improve more than solely health by integrating place-based approaches, inclusion of all kinds, and working to improve social justice.”

Author
Phil Bors
Phil Bors

Technical Assistance Director

Generous advisor, weeknight advocate, and active weekender.