Fish swim, birds fly and humans walk — or at least we should.
There is perhaps nothing more innately human than the way we walk.
Walking on two legs is more efficient than going on all fours. It allows us to see further and also frees us to use our hands as we move. We’ve been at it for milleniums and our bodies are fine-tuned to cover long distances by foot. And up until very recently in human history, people pretty much walked everywhere.
Our heart, lungs and our minds depend on the simple rhythm of a daily walk to clear our arteries, our airways and our thoughts. Our bodies need activity just as they need wholesome food, clean water and clean air.
But to look at us today, most Americans don’t walk enough to meet minimum guidelines for healthy levels of physical activity. This lack of activity results in a very unhealthy population. Increased rates of obesity, depression, heart disease and cancer all can be tied to a lack of physical activity.
There are lots of reasons people aren’t walking as much as they used to or at least as much as they should. With modern transportation, we don’t need to walk miles every day to find food and water. But something else has happened, especially in communities like the ones in Northwest Arkansas. For decades, we built our road networks, housing developments and commercial centers designed for maximum convenience and accommodation for people in cars, but without basic provisions for people on foot.
All this car-centric infrastructure and land use have resulted in suburban sprawl and large areas of our communities being cut off from safe walking routes.
Simply building sidewalks and trails may not always be enough. In his book Walkable City, Jeff Speck describes four key features of walkability: Walks must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. And as we’re starting to see when you get all of these components combined in one area, the results can be transformative.
People are now flocking to live in downtowns across Northwest Arkansas. Home prices in downtown Bentonville and Fayetteville have gone above and beyond anything that most of us could have imagined just a few years ago. Homes with modest floor plans located walking distance from shops, restaurants and parks go for hundreds of thousands more than similar homes located just a “short drive” away.
Perhaps the demand for these homes isn’t economic, but rather an expression of a desire to reclaim part of our humanity. A study by the American Enterprise Institute published earlier this month concluded that Americans who live close to community parks, libraries, restaurants and theaters are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs, or small cities or towns.
In any case, the economic benefits of building walkable communities have become increasingly clear. The real estate values, health care savings as well as the savings in our transportation system and environmental preservation all translate to a major boon for the local economy. If Northwest Arkansas is to continue to compete economically and provide the quality of life that our residents expect, we must get back to the very basics and invest in walkable infrastructure and developments.
Walking is not a privilege or a luxury, but a basic human right that we should all enjoy.