A Healthy Approach to Urban Living on Foot

Aug 16, 2016

It has become a hot word in the board rooms of health professionals and urban planners. Walkability – a measure of how friendly an area is to walkers. For an increasing number of cities and towns, making it easier to move around on foot has become a way to attract residents. 

A small group is conducting a walking audit of downtown Des Moines. It's heading toward Second Avenue, and then it will turn north with the idea of crossing the interstate.

The leader is the executive director of Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative, Jami Haberl. She carries a checklist of things to watch for.

“Building with large blank wall, bus transit station, fast, noisy traffic, we’ve got plenty of that, ” she laughs.

This tour of the pleasures and pitfalls of downtown Des Moines sidewalks and streets is the noontime break from a day-long session on how to make communities more walkable. It has drawn the heads of state agencies, health enthusiasts and regional planners. Within a half block of the downtown YMCA where the meeting is being held, the walking auditors encounter a parking garage exit they find troubling.

A parking garage opens out on a narrow sidewalk, causing concern among those conducting a walking audit.
Credit Rob Dillard

“You can’t really see pedestrians if cars are coming out of here, which seems wickedly dangerous,” observes one of the participants, Carrie Mueller.

She's with the regional office of the American Heart Association, which has a stake in healthy living.

“We definitely encourage people to get out and walk and be more physically active," she says. "But we want to make sure they’re doing it safely.”

The move toward walkable neighborhoods is not universally accepted. Many residents in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights reacted strongly to a plan to install sidewalks as a way to make walking safer. They were unhappy with being asked to maintain the walkways. But as he travels the country in his role as state and local program director for the nonprofit America Walks, Ian Thomas says most people enjoy the addition of walking paths.

“For the vibrancy, for the attractiveness, the flexibility of traveling around,” he says.

Much money and effort have gone into making Iowa's capital city more walkabile, including a pedestrian bridge spanning the Des Moines River.
Credit Rob Dillard

Each member of the 10-person group conducting the walking audit of downtown has a different reason for supporting walkability. For Meg Schneider of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, it’s to provide an amenity needed to attract new residents.

“People decide where they want to live and then they look for a job is the way things happen these days,” she says.

For Ashley Christensen, who works on Safe Routes to Schools in Decorah, it’s about protecting young people.

“Finding safe and accessible routes for our kids to use," she says. "When kids can use them, anyone can use them.”

And for Milly Ortiz, who coordinates bicycle and pedestrian issues for the Iowa DOT, it’s tied to transportation, even if the primary means for getting to work is by car or bus.

“That last few feet or yards are done walking," she says. "So everyone is a pedestrian.”

Before the walk, Jami Haberl from the Healthiest State Initiative had mapped out a route that would take the group across I-235.

“You’ll see some of the challenges along the way," she concedes. "But that’s the plan.”

The plan fizzles when they arrive at the crossroads. They see they will need to cross four lanes of traffic. And heavy traffic at that.

An uninviting pathway to the other side of the freeway.
Credit Rob Dillard

They stare at the intersection for several minutes, contemplate risking a crossing, and finally turn left down a quieter street. When it comes to walkability, the road less traveled is often the best option.