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Walking Audits: Interview with a Civic Innovator

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Livability is a term you see often these days in grant programs, as it’s a key priority among many DOT, HUD, and EPA grant programs. The term can be defined as the confluence of quality-of-life factors such as affordable housing, accessible and affordable transportation, and walkable and bikeable paths. “Walkability” is another term that is an important aspect of livability: If an area is walkable, then it might have some or all of the following features: wide and wheelchair-friendly sidewalks, bike and pedestrian paths, and amenities accessible on foot. A great way to measure walkability is for stakeholders to conduct a walking audit to assess pedestrian access.

So what does a walking audit have to do with your city, county, or nonprofit’s ability to win grant funding?

Walking audits demonstrate positive and negative aspects of urban design that affect pedestrian travel and can provide measurable evidence for a community to take further action or to present in a grant application. For example, Otay and Rice elementary schools in Chula Vista, California, received grant money from the Safe Routes to School program because “demonstration walking audits had been completed for the areas and the two schools had obvious needs for infrastructure improvements that could be enhanced with a non-infrastructure component.”

Dan Burden during a walking audit


With this in mind, I interviewed the expert who’s name is synonymous with walking audits, Dan Burden, to ask him how walking audits could help bolster a community. Dan has spent more than 35 years helping communities around the world “get back on their feet,” and was named by TIME magazine as “one of the six most important civic innovators in the world,” among other awards and recognitions. In 2009, he cofounded the Walkable and Livable Communities (WALC) Institute with Director of Education Sarah Bowman to create a focus on education, capacity building, and training to support communities in becoming more engaged and healthier through active living. Both Dan and Kelly Morphy, Director of Outreach and Communications at the WALC Institute, responded to the following questions.

Who usually contacts you to lead a walking audit?  

Our organization is often contacted by people in city planning, engineering, economic development, or safety who would like an appraisal of how to identify and make changes that have the greatest effect.

We are receiving more and more calls from departments of health and other health care providers, an industry which is increasingly recognizing the connection between transportation, the built environment, and public health. We also are hearing from organizations working to ensure that older Americans are well supported as they age, because most of us will outlive our ability to drive and we need to be able to get around using active modes of transportation. Environmental and sustainability-focused entities also contact us as they seek to help communities use fewer natural resources and reduce their carbon footprints. In fact, some of our most significant work in the past year has been done for AARP, the EPA, and public health departments across the country, including in Hawaii.

Have your walking audits helped local government agencies win grant funding? If so, can you cite some examples?

Walking audits are often the missing nexus that then forms the hub of many movements, interests, and energies to catalyze change in a community. My organization has seen this many times. Most recently, we completed a walking audit in Abu Dhabi that included all five of the city's chairmen. Once the walk was completed, the city officials made the commitment to go forward with a significant demonstration project on how to rebuild their streets to achieve a livable city.

In a number of cases, walking audits have led to grant funding. In far more cases, the events helped spark the correct spending of funds that were already appropriated.

Whether we are talking about a key town/gown connector such as Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, North Carolina; the three principal streets of Hamburg, New York; the main gateway into El Dorado, Arkansas; the first transit village in Charlotte, N.C.; or the total remake of La Jolla Boulevard in affluent Bird Rock in San Diego, California, people are looking for something on the ground that they can explore, touch, feel and be inspired by. 

In a number of cases, walking audits have led to grant funding. In far more cases, the events helped spark the correct spending of funds that were already appropriated.

Why not just rely on planning without the walking audit?

Planning creates methods to gather data, process data, and analyze data, but comes up short of activating people. Walking audits help put an essential quality back into bringing important elements of a community together into place, and then sharing these qualities (discoveries) and activating people to bring change. Why are we so excited about walking audits? Because they help bring about needed change.

Are walking audits catching on?

Yes, they are. The EPA has information promoting walking audits. The WALC Institute is in the final stages of preparing a series of guides to boost the number of communities that actively use walking audits as part of an engaging town-making process. Many who are planning schools are now actively using walking audits as an important planning tool.

What can people do to organize a walking audit?

By going to our website (http://www.walklive.org/) and downloading our AARP Implementation Guide, From Inspiration to Action: Implementing Projects that Support Active Living, and learning some of the reasons why it is important to transform the built environment to be more walkable and livable. Our forthcoming Walkability Workbook, commissioned by the EPA, teaches how to conduct a walking audit, prioritize changes, and then make it happen. In the interim, you can find walking audit guidance through the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and AARP’s Create the Good.

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