Mobility, mortality, millennials and money make good reasons, say panelists
Why should Houstonians care about creating a more walkable city? At a recent Rice Design Alliance (RDA) forum, expert panelists brought the answers to life, unlike the sidewalks pedestrians look for in vain astride thoroughfares throughout town.
The two-part RDA forum, held in the Brown Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, focused on the challenges and aspirations of reshaping the city into a more walkable place, while improving mobility, public health, social connections and even economic growth.
If nothing else, walking provides health benefits – a point starkly made by panelist Bakeyah Nelson, Ph.D., assistant professor, Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Houston-Clearlake. It takes only 30 minutes a day, five days a week for walking to improve health, said Nelson. Yet, Houstonians show significant signs of poor health, from high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity to the ultimately poor condition of premature death – all health indications that can be addressed by walking, said Nelson.
Maps shared by Nelson demonstrated rising obesity rates in neighborhoods poorly served by alternative transit or walkable corridors. Children in these Houston neighborhoods are particularly at risk for future health issues, explained Nelson, with an estimated 77 percent of youths five through 17 not getting enough physical activity.
The story of Fabiana Silvia Demarie kicked off the forum, as Clark Martinson, general manager of The Energy Corridor District, shared Demarie’s journey from the walkable city of Turin, Italy to the urban sprawl of Houston, where she worked as an urban planning intern for The District. Martinson highlighted the desire of millennials like Demarie to live in a place where pedestrians can walk safely, use alternative transportation or enjoy mixed-use developments where they can live, work and play in one connected place.
Martinson shared The District’s efforts to improve walkability by building sidewalks, enhancing intersections, promoting a trail network, providing shared vehicles at work, and seeking master-planned approaches to create more walkable connections among companies and locations in The Energy Corridor.
Panelist Christof Spieler, METRO board member, used aerial photos to demonstrate how an economy built around personal vehicles may actually impede economic opportunities. Photos of downtown and the Galleria area featured vast parking facilities sprawling over valuable land that could house retail, restaurants and other businesses, said Spieler. Other photos of subdivisions showed how their design makes it difficult to reach stores and businesses without walking or biking great distances. Spieler, in fact, “walked the talk,” traveling to work and that evening’s forum without ever stepping inside a car.
For one panelist, a video of the Art Guys attempting to walk what is called the longest street in Houston vividly showed the city’s raw, unfriendly pedestrian paths.
Dressed in business suits, the Art Guys could be seen walking alongside traffic, crossing dangerous intersections and traveling sidewalks that simply disappeared along the 29 miles of Little York Road. Susan Rogers, assistant professor and director, Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, told the RDA crowd that walking isn’t easy in a city built without pedestrians and cyclists in mind.
Creating walkable places in Houston, said the panelists, can only lead to a healthier, safer population, both physically and financially.