Gail Rosenblum
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Ellen Pillsbury is a fine fit for her professional title: Active transportation coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). She walks everywhere, or bikes or takes public transportation. Pillsbury wants us to be more active, too — ASAP. Our state’s obesity rate has topped 30%, climbing from 28% in 2017, according to statistics released earlier this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pillsbury knows we’re not going to change habits overnight, which is why she champions baby steps. She shares her hopes about a new MDH effort called Walkable Community Workshops, whose goal is to improve walkability, street safety and, let’s hope, overall health across the state.

Q: What’s the goal of the Walkable Community Workshops?

A: We’re trying to solve the problem of barriers to making walking a regular form of transportation to nearby destinations and, at the same time, making walking more comfortable for people who are already walking. It’s more sustainable for the environment and it allows people to get the physical activity they need every day.

Q: What stops people from walking?

A: Two things mostly: Safety and access. In terms of safety, people tell us about sidewalks that aren’t cleared of snow. They worry about fast traffic speeds. Sometimes, they fear for their personal safety when they’re walking alone. And sometimes, the problem is that there are no sidewalks where they need to go. The goal of the workshops is to brainstorm ways to improve walkability for everyone.

Q: What are the four communities?

A: The city of Red Wing East End neighborhood; Glendale Townhomes family housing in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park; Lincoln County; and the city of Fergus Falls. We wanted to make sure that we were working with a variety of communities, small and rural, low-income, urban and suburban. Thanks to a grant from the CDC, we were able to make available up to $5,000 to these four communities to support priorities they’ll identify during their workshops. Communities interested in hosting a future workshop can find details on our website: health.state.mn.us/communities/physicalactivity/walkbike.

Q: How will the workshops run?

A: Each community will host a six-hour workshop in October. They are responsible for inviting community participants, providing the space and helping with promotion and logistics. This year’s hosting teams are made up of local public health officials, planning departments, community organizations and a public housing department. The most impactful part will be when they walk around their neighborhood. This gives community members a chance to experience their environment together and ask, “What felt comfortable? What felt uncomfortable?” They’ll leave that day with short-term and longer-term goals. They’ll receive ongoing technical assistance from MDH as they implement their action plans this winter and into the spring of 2020.

Q: What might their plans look like?

A: We worked with three communities who hosted pilot workshops last fall and it was very common for participants to come in thinking they were just going to be talking about lack of sidewalks. But it became much more than that. Even with sidewalks, participants will notice details, like how uneven walking surfaces impact people differently. How street trees support walking, by providing shade and a buffer from the street. A lack of crosswalks or wide streets can make people feel unsafe crossing streets, as can lack of sufficient lighting.

Q: What changes might we see?

A: Walking routes designed, benches and trees added, curb extensions in place to improve crosswalks. Some communities might find a way to lower traffic speeds on local streets.

Q: Related to that, your effort includes education of drivers to make sure they’re doing their part to make walkers feel safe.

A: We encourage people-friendly driver training programs and raising awareness about Minnesota pedestrian laws.

Q: Is walking enough? Do we need a more aggressive plan to combat obesity among Americans, including our children?

A: Walking is the most accessible and available mode of transportation. One of the ways MDH is supporting communities is through Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP), which works in schools, neighborhoods and workplaces to increase access to and opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating. We also work closely with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program. My goal is to see more communities learn how to create a more friendly walking community. I want to support a shift to an overall social norm of prioritizing walking so people have the option to comfortably walk to destinations as part of their daily life. We know that people who live in walkable communities are twice as likely to get enough physical activity as those who don’t.

Q: Spoken like someone who practices what she preaches.

A: I’ve walked for transportation my whole life and have lived in communities where I had the option to walk to my main destinations. I walked to school as a kid, or biked, and have used public transportation to access jobs, all of which have greatly improved my quality of life. And my vacation fund is quite large.