If you heard that five of the 10 least walkable cities in the United States were located in one state, which state would you guess? Turns out the answer is North Carolina.
The Conversation published an article earlier this week by Jay Maddock from Texas A&M University titled “5 charts show why the South is the least healthy region in the US.”
Having lived in New Orleans for three years, I am pretty familiar with the fact that deep south states like Louisiana and Mississippi almost always come in last on health rankings. So it was no surprise to me when the first chart listed the most and least healthy states, and Mississippi was number 50 with Louisiana at 49. As they say in Louisiana, “at least we aren’t Mississippi.”
The article also looks at life expectancy by county in 2014. In the chart below, the South clearly has the lowest average life expectancy, illustrated by the lighter shade of blue. In North Carolina, Wake County had the highest average life expectancy in 2014 at 80.89 years and Robeson County had the lowest at 73.73 years.
The article goes on to explain the connection between health behaviors, such as smoking or exercising, and the development of chronic diseases that lead to lower life expectancies.
The chart below showing the 10 most walkable and 10 least walkable cities in the country according to walk scores caught my eye. I was shocked that five of the 10 least walkable cities as ranked by Walk Score are in North Carolina.
According to WalkScore’s methodology, a city’s walk score is calculated based on walking distance to amenities, population density, and road metrics such as block length and intersection density.
A walk score of 90-100 indicates daily errands do not require a car, 70-89 indicates most errands can be accomplished on foot, 50-69 indicates some errands can be accomplished on foot, 25-49 indicates most errands require a car, and 0-24 indicates almost all errands require a car.
Six cities in North Carolina with a population of more than 200,000 are included in the data — the five in the chart above and Raleigh, which has a walk score of 30.1. With five of its six largest cities scoring in the 10 least walkable cities, North Carolina has the highest share of cities in the 10 least walkable cities group. In comparison, California, which has 17 cities with a population over 200,000, has zero cities in the bottom 10 and one city, San Francisco, in the top 10.
Why does walkability matter?
Several studies have documented the positive impacts of walkable neighborhoods. Intuitively, it makes sense that more walkable neighborhoods result in healthier citizens, and research confirms this.
A recent study examined the impact of walkability on health in Louisville, Kentucky. This study is particularly relevant to North Carolina because while many studies look at large cities such as New York City and San Francisco, Louisville is a midsize city with a population of 741,000, making it roughly the same size as Charlotte. Additionally, Louisville is laid out similarly to Raleigh with one central business district, an inner beltway with smaller homes, and an outer beltway with larger, more suburban homes.
The study found that living in more walkable areas of Louisville was associated with less years of potential life lost, a common health metric that measures the difference between life expectancy and the actual age at which an individual dies. The authors point out that in Louisville, higher concentrations of poor and minority individuals currently live in the more walkable neighborhoods. However, as urban gentrification creates displacement, moving to less walkable neighborhoods will compound the health issues and lower life expectancies these populations experience.
A different study looked at the impact of walkable neighborhoods on measures of social capital in Galway, Ireland. The author found that people living in walkable neighborhoods were more likely to know their neighbors, participate politically, trust others, and be socially engaged when compared with people living in car-oriented suburbs. Beyond the value of social cohesion, the author explains that individuals with higher social connectedness are significantly less likely to die than those who are socially isolated.
How can North Carolina build more walkable cities?
Given that walkable cities lead to healthier, more socially connected residents, building walkable cities seems like a logical goal for policymakers and city planners. Several groups across the country working on developing and implementing solutions for more walkable cities.
The authors of the Louisville study propose two policy solutions. The first is to encourage city planners and developers to adopt healthy design standards, such as building more streets with sidewalks, adding bike lanes, adding bike storage and showers in buildings, and improving public transit.
The second policy solution is to focus on shifting behavioral norms by informing residents about the benefits of an active lifestyle and promoting healthy activities.
Design and urban planning schools are working with communities to increase walkability. At the Rhode Island School of Design, the Public Space and Public Health Initiative worked in collaboration with community leaders to address infrastructure problems that were contributing to a lack of walking in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence. Their emphasis on community engagement serves as a model for working with communities, not for communities.
As the population ages, walkability will become even more important as a way for older adults to get exercise. Hopefully cities in North Carolina will respond by taking steps (no pun intended) to increase their walkability and promote healthy, socially connected citizens.Weekly Insight Health & Human Services