Faces of Public Health: Wendy Landman

Nov 25, 2013, 11:05 AM


More than 145 million adults now include walking as part of a physically active lifestyle, according to a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this year. More than 6 in 10 people walk for transportation or for fun, relaxation, or exercise, or for activities such as walking the dog. The percentage of people who report walking at least once for 10 minutes or more in the previous week rose from 56 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2010.

But creating communities amenable for walking takes much more than the proverbial “putting one foot ahead of the other.” Over the last decade, more and more communities have done local walkability assessments, added sidewalks, installed or improved crossing signs and signals, and vastly increased programs such as Walking School Bus, which encourages parents and kids who live a mile or less from school to join safe walking programs.

And behind most of these advances is a walkability advocate who knows the transportation chiefs, the local policymakers and the laws in other jurisdictions that promote or dissuade walking. In Boston, that person is Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to improving walking conditions in cities and towns across Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to make walking and pedestrian needs a basic part of the transportation discussion,” says Landman.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Landman at WalkBoston’s central Boston offices during our visit to the city for the recent American Public Health Association annual meeting.

NewPublicHealth: Why is walking advocacy so important?

Wendy Landman: At WalkBoston we sometimes describe walking as the club that everybody belongs to and nobody joins. Because it’s such a basic element of what every human being does, walking often gets forgotten, and it gets forgotten in many different ways. At the most basic level, walking is often left out of land-use planning and civil engineering. We forget to incorporate sidewalks and safe-street crossings. We forget to design and build our communities so that people can actually walk between places—whether it is kids walking to school or to a friend’s house, or adults walking to shops or church. That’s not to say that we should all live in a scale that’s just walkable, but many things that we do every day, day in and day out, would be better for human beings and for the planet if we could walk to some of them.

NPH: What are the barriers to improving walkability, both in Boston and nationally?

Landman: Clearly our land-use patterns of dispersed residential and commercial uses are a barrier. Another barrier is the mistaken assumption that building a transportation system that doesn’t include walking is OK and that walking infrastructure is not a good investment. In Massachusetts we are starting to see some real change in these barriers, and we’re getting better at including walking. As we are learning in Massachusetts, it sometimes even makes sense to add walking and biking to the interstate system. We are currently building a pedestrian/bike bridge as part of a major highway bridge because it will connect walking and bicycling paths on either side of the Merrimack River.

Another barrier might be called the habituation problem. So many people do not walk as part of their everyday lives that they have almost forgotten that it is a basic form of mobility. They walk out their door, get in the car, and drive everywhere. Yet, when they go on vacation, they drive or fly somewhere to walk. The top vacation destinations in the United States are all highly walkable, whether they’re the national parks or Disney World or New York City. People travel to places where they can walk, but it does not occur to them to walk as part of their daily lives. Getting beyond that habituation barrier is one part of WalkBoston’s work. We find many different ways to remind people that walking can be a basic way to get around, and we show them how to build walking into their everyday activities.

NPH: Who needs to be at the table in order for communities to increase walkability?

Landman: One of the first things we do when we provide technical assistance to communities is show them that practically every municipal department is part of the walking equation. We pull in the school, police and public works departments; the senior center; parks and recreation; planning; and arts and culture. We think that the table needs to be incredibly broad.

The good news is that at the federal level, we are now seeing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation working together on walkable communities’ initiatives.

Another critical participant is the business community. WalkBoston developed a program we call “Good Walking is Good Business,” which demonstrates how important walkability is to healthy retail districts and to businesses that are trying to attract young employees. The real estate world is now abuzz with stories about businesses that have moved to less expensive space out in green field sites, and then relocated back to urban centers because they couldn’t attract and retain younger employees who want to be somewhere they can walk out the door to get lunch or run errands.

NPH: Is the increasing walkability in Massachusetts replicable in another area or do we need to reinvent the wheel when we think about walkability in each location?

Landman: I want to say the answer is both. Many things are replicable, but we always need to be context sensitive. There are no “cookie cutter” solutions, but we can absolutely learn from each other. People around the country are looking at what other communities are doing, and sharing ideas.

One such shared idea is the concept of a “fit city” where you not only design the outdoors to encourage physical activity, but you think about movement and physical activity in all aspects of community design. For example, designing buildings where the stairs are front and center, so instead of being immediately directed to the elevator in a lobby, you are directed to attractive and open stairways. The principles of a fit city are now being incorporated all over the world, but while the big idea is replicable, the way it gets applied is different. Some cities are incorporating it into their building codes while others are showing by example with the designs of public buildings.

NPH: How can we advance walking in lower-income communities to help use walking to improve population health?

Landman: It is critical to give the residents of low income communities the skills and tools they need to act as their own advocates with municipal government. WalkBoston works with a number of grassroots organizations to teach community residents about the ways in which the built environment and the operations of the transportation system affect peoples’ health. We then hear community voices asking for good walking and biking conditions in their own neighborhoods.

The other critical piece of the puzzle is, of course, personal safety. There are many neighborhoods where parents don’t let their children go outside and play or walk to the park because of the danger from traffic. But in some communities there is an additional danger from crime. Both of those pieces need to be tackled.

As our understanding of the importance of physical activity to human health has grown, so has our understanding of the importance of engaging people to be activists in their own communities. The movement to build such partnerships is taking place across the country, not yet as deeply and as broadly as it needs to, but it is happening in lots of places.

NPH: What are your own walking habits? How have they changed?

Landman: Since joining WalkBoston almost ten years ago I have become much more conscious of how I get around the city. I’ve discovered that a number of places that I used to get to on the bus or by car are actually within pretty easy walking distance of my house and office, so I walk a lot more. And I pay lots of attention to walking details in ways that I never did before. I come home from vacations with pictures of curb ramps and sidewalk surfaces from around the world. My family thinks I take pretty funny vacation photos.

>>Bonus Links: WalkBoston has excellent resources on its website, from detailed walking tours near the city’s two convention centers to get visitors up and walking to a reference guide on the health benefits of walking and a primer on why walking is good for business.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.