Local walking groups are reclaiming the streets
HOW “walkable” is your neighbourhood? If it’s raining outside, you can find out by checking Walk Score, a website that measures “how easy it is to live a car-lite lifestyle” in your area. You might be surprised by what you find nearby.
The site was founded in the USA, but works in Australian cities too. Type in your address and it’ll rank your location from zero to one hundred, in a category from “car-dependent” through to “walker’s paradise”.
Dr Ben Rossiter, from Victoria Walks, says Walk Score is being used more often in real estate, especially in medium density suburbs.
“It gives people a really good idea of what is close by. The most highly walkable communities have a variety of services and facilities relevant to everyday life, all within walking distance – things like schools, shops, parks, cafes and movie theatres,” he says.
“Walking is becoming increasingly important to people when they’re deciding where they want to live. The choice might be more about having high walkability than it is about having a bigger backyard.”
Victoria Walks is a charity, funded by VicHealth, which promotes everyday walking. Among other initiatives, it will shortly launch an online mapping project in which residents upload their favourite routes, from strolls through hidden alleys to hikes in national parks.
“Walking goes beyond the act of getting physically active,” Rossiter says. “It creates safe, vibrant and connected communities. One of the key indicators of a healthy and sustainable neighbourhood is the number of kids walking to school.”
And, of course, more walking means less driving, and fewer carbon dioxide emissions. As the Walk Score website states, “Your feet are zero-pollution transportation machines”.
Rossiter says the first way to make your streets more walkable is to walk. “Step outside and say g’day to people while you do it. You could start an informal walking school bus with neighbours. We always like to see householders in their front yards too – grow vegetables there, so you can say hello when people go past.”
You can also form a Walkability Action Group, or join one in your area. (There are 16 existing groups listed on the Victoria Walks website.) Last year, a group in East Ivanhoe successfully lobbied local and state governments to install a pedestrian crossing next to the notorious Burke Road North roundabout.
Another Walkability Action Group, Locomote, based on the Northern Bellarine Peninsula, has been working with local authorities to make their foreshore track usable for all-comers.
Locomote’s Patricia Crotty says “equity of access” is crucial, especially with an aging population in the region. “We’d love to see more people walking, but the footpath infrastructure isn’t great in these little towns. It’s a big issue for young parents with pushers too.”
Changes are afoot. In the centre of Portarlington, the council has widened the sidewalks and created a new town square.
“They’ve put in trees and places to sit, and restored the historic rotunda. It’s opened up the whole main street,” Crotty says. “People can wander around there in a way that wasn’t possible before, because traffic has been blocked off in the connecting street.
“Sustainable communities are places with gathering spots. They have to be safe and accessible, with the opportunity for people to come and sit in the main street and watch the world go by.”