By Kathy Sykes
The first steps I took when I was young soon opened the door to my independence and later my first run. Most of us take walking for granted—until it is no longer easy. Luckily, my parents chose Madison, Wisconsin to raise me and my siblings, in a beautiful and walkable neighborhood. The places we frequented on foot left an indelible memory—the Arboretum, Picnic Point (my favorite!), the duck pond, and Vilas Zoo. From pre-school to graduate school, we could go practically anywhere on foot.
A short distance from our home there was a grocery store, bakery, pharmacy, ice cream shop, and dentist. Walking another direction from home I passed the Friends Meeting House, a pet store, a hardware store, a bank, and a mailbox—everything needed was steps away.
When I moved to Washington, D.C. to start my career, I sought a similar neighborhood that did not require a car. While I arrived in DC prior to the creation of Walk Score, I selected a walkable community. Walk Score is a tool that ranks the walkability of a place on a scale from zero (“Must Have a Car”) to 100 (“Walker’s Paradise”).
I grew up in a “very walkable” neighborhood (walk score of 84) and live in one now (walk score 82). While walkability is critical, other attributes matter too, such as the extent of tree canopy cover available to shade the sidewalks on a hot summer day, traffic patterns, how local storm water is managed, and air quality. As a senior advisor working in EPA’s sustainable and healthy communities research program, I work with scientists, engineers, and other experts illuminating those attributes that add up to a healthy environment and how important they are for our own well-being.
One of my tasks as an appointee of the Mayor’s Age-Friendly DC Taskforce was to lead walking audits. Together with individuals of all ages and abilities we documented the absence and conditions of sidewalks, intersection visibility and safety, the presence of curb cuts, and whether individuals with a slow gait had sufficient time to cross. Finally, were benches present to rest or wait for a bus?
That kind of work is what led to an invitation to represent EPA at the official launch of “Step it Up!”—the Surgeon General’s call to action to promote walking and walkable communities.
Mobility can be a challenge from very early, later in life, or throughout life. It is up us to make changes to ensure that we all can enjoy the independence, health, and environmental benefits of walking.
The Surgeon General has it right: a walk is as good as a hit. In my opinion, his Call to Action on Walking and Walkable Communities is a home run.
About the Author: EPA’s Kathy Sykes has been “Stepping it Up” to advance sustainability and healthy communities for more than a decade. She is an expert in issues related to aging in place.