Walk21-XII: Metro Vancouver, Canada
Transforming the automobile city - walking steps up!
3- 5 October, 2011
Conference delegates were treated to an inspiring and insightful conference full of wit and wisdom, including tricky technical debates, strategic overviews of the impact of history, the role of committed individuals and the critical health issues that create the context in which we seek to support more walking. Beautiful and fun artistic moments were also part of the mix, with singing plenaries, artistic interpretations of public space and funky walking sticks with rearview mirrors.
While some participants worked through how to best measure walking, the walkability of communities or the economic impact of walking initiatives, others stepped out into the streets and waterfront of Metro Vancouver to experience first hand some of the great infrastructure the region has to offer.
The value of walking to enhance the well-being of communities was realised not only in discussions but also in experiencing public space together, as delegates and locals explored issues of sustainable happiness, choosing a slower pace and a people centred approach to community building, or bustled along the streets between venues, deep in discussion.
Just as automobile clubs, dealerships and manufacturers came together to create the ‘Motordom’ movement in the 1920’s researchers, policy makers and practitioners are now firmly united to effect a global movement for encouraging more walking in our towns and cities. As the true cost of our car dependency is realised, in terms of the impact on our health, land use and personal wealth, the assumption that we need, and must rely on, our cars is being increasingly questioned.
There are lessons to be learnt from places like Vancouver who have taken positive decisions to reduce the impact of the car, increase the walkability of neighbourhoods and ensure a more sustainable balance. Positive decisions which more and more communities are now demanding of their politicians.
Although walking, as a physical activity, is no longer ‘necessary to live’ for many people, when we reduce the amount we walk, or even give it up, the quality of our lives declines in a quick and measurable way. Medics have asked us to play our part in being a health provider, to help reduce their burgeoning task of bandaging patients broken by the choices they have made to walk less.
Our task is to give communities the people, places and purpose so that they work to support walking. The chronic stress brought on by an imbalance in these building blocks of a quality life lead to many of the world’s early deaths, and are largely avoidable, if friendly, attractive and walkable places are built and managed to support an active population.
The most vulnerable people in society have the most to gain from an investment in walkability. Studies have now proven that a package of investment in mixed use, high density, communities, peppered with parks and connected by transit, sidewalks and trails is what works for a town or city of any size. For every $1 spent there are $3 in health benefits to be gained.
In an age when priorities for projects are governed by ever stricter demands for proven cost savings, economic benefits and an increase in jobs, we have sufficient evidence now to justify the redesign of our towns and cities where they have become imbalanced due to an over dependency on the car. Investment in walking can be proven to be relevant, inclusive, cheap and sustainable. Communities who have married visionary politicians, educated practitioners and inspired communities have delivered happier and healthier people.
Experiential and incremental learning are effective ways of delivering change at a city level. By ‘aiming for Bronze’ and measuring the benefit, practitioners have confirmed that you can often end up in the longer term ‘with Gold’ but its only what gets measured that gets done so benchmarking and using tools like the International Charter for Walking and the Make Walking Count community questionnaire are vital.
Being creative and inspirational is as important as having the right people and tools to encourage more walking. As Antoine de Saint Exupery said,
‘If you want to build a ship, don’t assemble people and assign them tasks, but rather rouse in them the longing for the endless immensity of the sea’.
We must aim to create that longing for walkability in our communities and we will know when we have done it well, as the people will assemble and ask us how they can help.