Ehlinger, Zelle, Ward: St. Paul: Leading the way in walkable communities

Minnesota’s hosting of the National Walking Summit is something state residents should take pride in. Not only is it an opportunity for us to play host and show off our attributes to visitors from around the country, it’s a chance for Minnesota to highlight the great work it has done to make walking safer and easier for our residents, urban and rural alike.

The summit will take place in St. Paul Wednesday through Friday. Titled “Vital and Vibrant Communities — The Power of Walkability,” it is designed to provide an opportunity for community advocates, nonprofit representatives, government officials and transit, health and planning professionals to come together to exchange ideas and to learn from each other what works best in making it easier for people to benefit from walking. As the summit’s title notes, walking is “power” — power for the individual, for communities, for economies and for society as a whole.

Anyone who walks daily or even occasionally can recite personal stories about the power of walking. Those who walk feel better and their physical and mental health is improved. Studies show that those who engage in moderate exercise such as walking experience significant declines in some cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and dementia, as well as other conditions.

But the power of walking goes beyond health. Communities that have safe walking infrastructure are more vibrant. Children in such communities do better in school. Walkable communities also benefit those with lower incomes by making it easier to travel to work, purchase groceries and interact with others without being burdened by the expenses associated with an automobile and fuel. Seniors and those with disabilities are also clear beneficiaries of more walkable communities.

Walkable communities are also resulting in significant economic benefits. Businesses, especially those in the tech and creative fields with younger workforces, are relocating to walkable towns and cities because they recognize that those are the type of communities those workforces want to live and work in. Retail establishments quickly follow on the heels of the implementation of safe, walkable community designs. Take Albert Lea, for example, where a new walk-friendly Main Street has resulted in 15 new businesses, with an additional $2 million to $5 million more in investment planned there.

Albert Lea is just one case of what is happening in Minnesota communities. Battle Lake, Northfield and others have made walkability hallmarks of their communities. St. Paul created a $42 million Vitality Fund to promote walking and other community improvements. The state of Minnesota is implementing a statewide pedestrian plan — known as Minnesota Walks — a joint effort of MnDOT and the Minnesota Department of Health to create a roadmap for how all Minnesotans can have safe, desirable and convenient places to walk and roll where they live, work, learn and play.

While what we have done collectively in Minnesota to make our state more walkable is one of the reasons St. Paul was selected as the site of this year’s summit, we, like all others states, have more work to do. In fact, one could argue that our work has just begun, especially in those communities and locations where economic challenges exist, along with some of Minnesota’s greatest health inequities. In many of those locations, walking vastly increases the likelihood that you will be killed by traffic, compared with more affluent locations.

Nonetheless, in Minnesota we can take heart that when it comes to walkable communities, we are a national leader with a positive vision of the future and all of the potential benefits that walking can bring to our residents. We know from experience that walking truly does create individual, community and societal power.  And we know that when that power is created, everyone benefits.

Edward Ehlinger is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, Charlie Zelle is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Anika Ward is director of the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.


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