Physical activity is key to improving health outcomes. Kate Robb, senior program manager for environmental health with APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, reports on a recent effort to develop and implement plans for creating more walkable communities.

KateRobbAPHA was pleased to take part in the fourth annual Step It Up!: Action Institute to Increase Walking and Walkability in Decatur, Georgia, last month. Also known as the Walkability Action Institute, or WAI, this multi-day course is designed to help interdisciplinary teams develop and implement Walkability Action Plans to benefit their regions over the long term.Created and hosted by the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, WAI invites nine regional teams from throughout the U.S. to take part each year.

Each team includes representatives from public health, transportation, planning, elected office and other sectors within a region. The teams are tasked with employing policy, systems and environmental changes to encourage and support physical activity in their region.

We know it is vital to form and sustain multi-sector partnerships since the decisions, policies and practices of many different sectors affect our health. With support from CDC, APHA collaborated with the Allegheny County WAI regional team to support its inter-agency focus on health equity.

The team included representatives from the Allegheny County Health Department, Allegheny County Economic Development Department, PA Walk Works, Southwestern PA Commission and Wilkinsburg Borough, as well as Jason Coates and me from APHA.

Throughout the course, our team gained greater insight into creating walkable regions that met the priorities set by the team. Through group discussion and work with national experts, such as Mark Fenton, Leslie Meehan and Charles Brown, we were able to factor in such important issues as racial equity to the Walkability Action Plan for Allegheny County.

This meant broadening the community engagement strategy for greater inclusion and focusing more attention on residents living in vulnerable communities. Hearing from the other WAI teams, it was clear that all of the regions face similar challenges, including affordable housing, health integration into transportation plans, universal design and more.

To further enhance the lessons of the course, we gained hands-on experience analyzing walkable environments through a walk audit and scavenger hunt. The outdoor forays to identify essential elements of bicycle and walking infrastructure — or lack thereof — reinforced the need for walkable environments to encourage and support active living.

The Allegheny County team included developing a walking audit train-the-trainer model as one of the strategies of its action plan. This model could be offered to all 130 municipalities in Allegheny County upon completion of a pilot program.

Health, census and transportation data would help identify the most vulnerable communities, for inclusion in the pilot program. This strategy would help build the capacity of municipalities and increase the adoption of systems-level policies to ensure that its communities are walkable and bikeable for all.

The WAI was a great experience for us and reinforced the value of working across sectors to advance walkable communities and health equity. The multi-day course allowed for time, discussion and integration of best practices among team members, supporting a vision of a safer, more inclusive and walkable environment for all.