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Long Beach: Finding Ways to Get More People Walk

7:13 AM PDT on August 22, 2012

Walk Long Beach inaugurated its walk audit tours this weekend in the Cambodia Town neighborhood huddled north of Anaheim Street between Atlantic and Junipero Avenues.

The audits--a collaboration between YMCA of Greater Long Beach, Building Helathy Communities Long Beach, and the newly minted urban design non-profit City Fabrick--have a simple agenda: to walk around five underserved neighborhoods to assess the safety and walkability of those neighborhoods.

The YMCA's involvement in the project is paired with its recent grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to further implement its Pioneering Healthy Communities (PHC) project, which aims to improve the health of communities via policy and environmental changes that further safety and walkability.

"Our vision for the walking program is to promote livable neighborhoods for residents and visitors through exploration on foot," stated Melissa Wheeler, Healthy Communities Director for the YMCA of Greater Long Beach. She emphasized that, beyond direct health and environmental benefits, increasing walkability will also provide gains in relation to economic vitality, climate change, traffic congestion, social cohesion, and community safety.

"These walk audits are a great opportunity to engage local stakeholders," explains Brian Ulaszewski, executive director and founder of City Fabrick. "[To] show them every cracked sidewalk, darkly lit corner, and missing street sign. They walk, drive, ride, and live on these streets everyday."

For Ulaszewski, he believes the audits provide direct, quantitative reasons as to why one street may be more appeasable to travel via foot than another. "A nice tree canopy with low or slow traffic is typically nicer than narrow sidewalks and fast moving cars for pedestrians."

And his point has one that goes beyond simply providing more space for those that choose to walk by foot; Wheeler and himself want to increase foot traffic because it is also good for business as well as increasing affluence.

"As walkers grow more accustomed to observing the built environment and natural areas of the community, they are more likely to be proactive and concerned about locations that are unsafe, unattractive or inefficient for pedestrian access," she continued.

A study by Sustrans, the influential alternative mobility UK group that pioneered the "Safe Routes" concept, showed that it would be advantageous to local businesses to support measures at attracting more pedestrians and bus passengers to local shopping centers rather than car users because more foot-friendly urban design "attracts more regular, dedicated custom to the area and have a positive impact on retailers and customers alike."[1]

Valencia Street in the Mission District of San Francisco is one of the most recent and direct examples where, according to Complete Streets, after traffic lanes were slimmed to slow down cars and accommodate alternative transporters, 40% of merchants reported an increase in sales and 60% reported more residents shopping locally due to reduced travel time and convenience.

Even further, there are philosophical and aesthetic points to such walk audits, since randomly meandering one's neighborhood exposes one to unique aspects of that particular community: history, architecture, gardens... A direct example on this particular audit was a run-down fire station that the city eventually turned into a fire history museum, housing some of the city's antique fire trucks and operating systems. This was on top of the a half-dozen quaint lanes with vintage cottages and two parks.

The audit, particularly given it was the first, was a relative success, with some thirty community members strapping on safety vests to meander their neighborhood by foot. They took note of uneven sidewalks, differences in choice of materials for park paths (e.g. cement versus stones), noise pollution, shade, and other various aspects that are usually unnoticed in everyday exploration.

"The great thing," Ulaszewski concluded, "is that a byproduct from these audits will be a collection of walking tours across Long Beach that be shared with people looking to explore unique parts of the city."

The next audit is scheduled for an unknown time in October.

[1] Sustrans: Shoppers and how they travel. Information Sheet LN02. Bristol, Sustrans, 2006.

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