Equity through Street Scale Technical Assistance Empowers All Communities

keith benjaminTwo weeks ago, I sat listening intently with 700 other advocates at the National Bike Summit as we were addressed by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. I was eager to hear the Secretary not only speak to the importance of a holistic view of mobility in all communities, but also to the importance of addressing equity issues in active transportation planning, a central focus of the Safe Routes Partnership’s Active Transportation Diversity Task Force. He did not disappoint. In fact, in his blog post that same day, he raised the imperativeness of a community’s walkability and bikeability, saying that “this isn’t just an issue of recreation; it’s an issue of equality, bringing people together, expanding the middle class, and helping people who are trying to get into the middle class.” In other words, equity is not an outlier -- it is an integral tool in ensuring that as communities are built they are accessible, affordable, increase physical activity and are safe.

Secretary Foxx’s words come to life through the Safe Routes Partnership’s collaboration with Voices for Healthy Kids ® on Active Places, where we actively engage with communities around the country providing assistance and coaching to increase access to parks, playgrounds, school gyms, walking paths and other opportunities to be physically active. In our work with dozens of communities, we see that equity in active transportation comes in all colors, shapes and sizes. One such example is the Village of Walthill, Nebraska. Sitting on the Omaha Reservation, the Village has a population of just 780, who are mostly Native American. A great deal of their children walk to school and a primary concern was safety, so we have worked with Rita Dunn, Planner and Developer for the Village, to establish a Complete Streets Ordinance. The Complete Streets Ordinance passed last month by their governing board and Walthill has also submitted a grant for a Safe Routes to School project.

Rita is adamant that “small communities should not dismiss themselves from applying for resources that may look like only large communities will receive.  Instead, they should develop collaborations to strengthen their proposals.  Every proposal you do only strengthens your community.” She is putting all the building blocks in place for healthy community design and the Village of Walthill is shattering the stereotype that small communities cannot capitalize on opportunities to improve their built environment. 

Another example is found in Sodus, New York, a community of less than 1,800 people that sits midway between Rochester and Syracuse. With no community center, the school has become the primary gathering place for community residents, and accessibility is a priority. Unfortunately, in some cases the sidewalks are heaved and cracked; in other cases, no sidewalks have ever been constructed. Knowing that silos had to be broken down, Jay Roscup, Project Director for the 21st Century Community Learning Center, and Sandra Hamilton from the Village Planning Board brought together all the stakeholders to build a coalition in three months. With the full support of their Mayor, Superintendent and Town Supervisor, the town applied for our technical assistance, and we helped them to formulate and pass a sustainable, binding Complete Streets Resolution. The goal of this process was to “change the way residents of Sodus view their community and change the expectations the community ha[d] for infrastructure development.”  Equity to them meant being inclusive in their advocacy and their success shows how a small group of concerned citizens could make a big impact on how their community will be constructed going forward.

These successes make it clear that neither the capacity, class nor the color of a community dictates its ability to become more healthy, accessible and safe.  It is core to the Safe Routes Partnership’s mission to bring people together to create communities - all communities, anywhere – that are built so it is accessible, affordable and safe to be physically active.