For A Safer, Healthier City, Start Walking

Jan 14, 2014

For a more walkable city, people need a place to walk to.  For example, take The Avenue in Hampden; residents can walk from their homes to the grocery store or the hair salon or the barber shop.

Urban planners call that a “mixed use” community, where commercial space and residential housing are in close proximity to each other.

“It then decreases the likelihood that you need to get into your car in order to meet your basic requirements for daily living,” says Baltimore Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot. She calls that an element of making a walkable city.

There are other elements as well such the design of curbs and curb cuts, sidewalks and landscaping to encourage walking and a healthier lifestyle; elements being kept in mind as Baltimore rewrites its zoning code.

The Baltimore City Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee will begin Tuesday working on the first comprehensive rezoning in four decades.

Zoning codes were created during industrialization with the overall goal of protecting the public’s health from noxious gases and other elements that can cause harm.  An unintended consequence took place as the rush to protect people took place.

“We realized that the way we built our communities makes it harder to get to the places we want to go using active transportation like walking or biking,” says Yvonne Michael, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia.

Over time public health officials have changed their focus from harmful elements from factories to chronic health problems such as obesity and violence.

“What makes us sick today is very different from made us sick back then,” Barbot says adding that the zoning code needs to reflect as much.

After looking at how to encourage more people to walk, the focus then shifts to how to keep people safe while walking.

“There are what’s called crime prevention through environmental design which includes windows closer to the ground so you can have more eyes on the street,” Barbot says.

The more walkable and attractive a community is, the more people will be out and about.  A crime is less likely to take place with more people out on the street.

Officials in other cities are looking to create walkable cities.  Philadelphia, which recently completed the first rewrite of its zoning code in 50 years, created a new position called Healthy Communities Coordinator who works simultaneously for the health and planning departments.

The coordinator helps planners understand how rezoning affects residents’ health and helps heath officials understand the intention of city planners.

No such person exists in Baltimore, but the health department does work with other departments in the city at times such as this.