Faith Communities and Walkability

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In addition to being safer from the dangers of speeding vehicles, people who live in places where they can walk as part of their daily routine have lower rates of obesity and are less likely to suffer from diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. This is according to a paper published in the Touro Law Review by Michael Lewyn, a law school professor and Strong Towns member. Lewyn cites a study by three Arizona State University scholars who found that a 1% increase on their walkability index was associated with numerous health benefits, including 49% lower likelihood of diabetes, 39% lower likelihood for hypertension, and 40% lower likelihood for heart disease.

Walking is good for emotional, spiritual, and even civic health as well. Walkability helps combat the epidemic of loneliness in our communities. Places that all but require car travel can exclude huge swaths of the population, including kids and young teenagers, many of the elderly, people who can’t afford to own a vehicle, people who can’t drive, and people who don’t want to drive. A 2015 report from the U.S. Surgeon General describes how the built environment can bring people together—offering more opportunities for personal interaction and social involvement—or can keep them apart. In walkable communities, “people can walk with family members or friends, stop to chat with neighbors while walking their dog, walk to a local store or bus stop with a friend, meet regularly for a group walk, or participate in a ‘walking meeting’ with colleagues. These interactions help strengthen the personal bonds that bring people and communities together, creating more social cohesion.” 

The opposite is also true, as described by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. A political scientist known for his study of social capital, Putnam found a strong correlation between commute times and civic engagement. Each 10 additional minutes in daily commute time cut community involvement by 10%: “fewer public meetings attended, fewer committees chaired, fewer petitions signed, fewer church services attended, and so on,” he wrote. In his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Speck points to a 2010 study of two cities in New Hampshire that surveyed residents in more walkable locations and less walkable locations. Researchers found that people living in more walkable neighborhoods were more likely to participate in community projects and clubs, were more likely to volunteer, and were more likely to trust their neighbors.

As evidenced by a wide range of groups—Green MuslimsHazon, greenfaith, Interfaith Power & Light, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Blessed Earth, and A Rocha, among others—many people include care for nature as part of living out their faith. We at Strong Towns believe that the most immediate and radical thing we can do to cut emissions is the same thing cities must do to address their insolvency crisis: replace automobile trips with biking and walking. According to the 2015 Surgeon General’s report mentioned above, multiple studies have shown that when the built environment becomes more walkable and bikeable, people start walking and biking. (Imagine that!) And more people walking and biking results in “lower emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.”

How Can Faith Communities Help Make Their Neighborhoods More Walkable

A couple years ago, two friends of Strong Towns started The Embedded Church Podcast, a show about the intersection of faith communities and the built environment. The hosts are Eric O. Jacobsen, a pastor and author in Tacoma who has been featured twice on the Strong Towns Podcast, and Sara Joy Proppe, the founder of the Proximity Project (and a longtime Strong Towns contributor). The Embedded Church is geared toward a Christian audience, but I believe people of other faiths can find it inspiring and educational, as well.

Over the holidays I started catching up on some back episodes. Through the podcast, I took up Eric and Sara’s invitation to read Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. My colleagues, as well as a huge number of Strong Towns members, know and love Speck’s work. I’m surprised—and a little embarrassed—that I hadn’t read the book before. Now that I’ve finished the excellent Walkable City, I’m continuing on with the follow up, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places

Inspired by Speck’s books, and by Eric and Sara’s podcast, I started jotting down notes on how faith communities can help make their neighborhoods more walkable. In fact, I created the outline for this article while on a series of walks near my own church.

1. Help build a culture of walking and biking in your neighborhood.

In a Local-Motive session last year on how to pick your next bike lane battle, Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn talked about building a biking culture in your city. The same approach can be used to build a culture of walking. Chuck encouraged advocates to ask three questions, which I’ve adapted slightly:

  1. Where do people now walk for transportation and not merely for recreation? Those people are your project supporters.

  2. Where are those trips most difficult or dangerous? The struggles they can attest to are your rallying cry.

  3. What is the quickest and cheapest way to alleviate that difficulty or danger? The simple and affordable project is the low bar you’re asking the community to cross.

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