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With the growth of suburban developments, more and more Washington residents live in automobile-oriented communities rather than in environments that encourage modes of active transport such as walking, cycling, and other non-motorized methods. Existing zoning and land use policies, that were developed without consideration of their impact on human health, have led to disconnected development patterns and created places that make walking and biking difficult.(4)
A 2005 survey of Washington adults found that people who live within walking distance of destinations such as grocery stores and restaurants were more likely to walk or bike often. They are also more likely to walk or bike if they felt their neighborhood was safe and easy to walk in.
Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is a formal process to evaluate the health effects of a policy, project, or program. Communities use HIA to analyze how development projects might affect walking, bicycling, and transit, as well as air and water quality, public safety, and a sense of community. In some cases, HIAs are required as part of the regulatory process. Public Health Seattle and King County, Seattle City Planning, Feet First, and community stakeholders conducted an HIA of Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in order to assess the potential health effects of future development near a light rail station. The assessment examined the project’s potential impact on public transit, walkability, and indicators of a healthy community. Results were used to provide input for redevelopment planning for areas impacted by the Sound Transit light rail project.
All communities have existing policies that influence the future of the community. When they are provided with choices, policy makers are able to choose policies that are associated with livable, health-promoting communities. Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill (ESSB) 5186, passed by the Washington State Legislature in 2005, requires communities to consider urban planning approaches that promote physical activity.(7) In response to this legislation, policies have been developed and implemented in many of Washington’s communities.(8) For example, the City of Wenatchee's comprehensive plan requires sidewalks and pathways through new mixed-use and commercial development to improve pedestrian access. Yakima's comprehensive plan encourages converting streets from four lanes to three with bicycle lanes, and designates a fund for improving intersections to increase pedestrian usage.
The most active communities allow and encourage a rich mix of land uses: homes, schools, churches, shops, restaurants and offices.(9) Accessibility, attractive scenery, good lighting, restrooms, drinking water, and well-designed and well-maintained paths and sidewalks are important, too.(10) A study conducted in Seattle showed that neighborhood characteristics, including higher residential density and clusters of destinations like grocery stores and restaurants, increase the frequency of walking.(11) This is true for older adults as well.(12)
Local governments can plan and implement mixed use, walkable neighborhoods. Several Washington cities, including Mill Creek, Lake Forest Park, Sammamish and Kenmore have designated town centers that include retail, restaurant, office, cultural and recreational facilities, and moderate-density residential areas.(13)
Fewer children walk or bike to school when new schools are built on large sites in undeveloped areas.(14) Schools sited away from students’ homes require extensive parking lots and large expensive bussing programs and limit a community's sense of connection with its schools. For several decades, national school construction guidelines recommended building larger schools on larger sites, but these have recently been changed to encourage school siting based on local needs. Renovating older schools in walkable communities preserves active community environments. Green Park Elementary School in Walla Walla is located in an older part of town that was developed using a walkable grid of streets. The renovation of this historic building received an architectural award.
The Spokane Comprehensive Plan directs that new elementary and middle schools should be located centrally in their service area on sites that allow children to walk safely to school. Lidgerwood, Lincoln Heights, and Ridgewood Elementary schools were replaced by new construction. The new two-story design allowed Lidgerwood to retain its spacious outdoor playfield and gain indoor space including additional classrooms and a gym.
Daybreak Primary School and Daybreak Middle School in Battleground are designated as primarily walking schools. Eighty percent of the students live within a mile of the schools and will not be bussed to school. Parents are encouraged to walk with their children. The school board hopes that the “walking school” will foster parent involvement in the schools as well as save the cost of busing. Similar strategies were applied to planning for two new school service boundaries scheduled to open in 2008.