Every Body Walk! celebrates active communities this February with our monthly theme. This is a guest blog post by monthly theme lead organization Active Living by Design. Sarah Moore is the Communications and Marketing Manager at Active Living By Design. Sarah develops and executes strategic communications activities, manages ALBD’s brand identity and website, and designs publications, presentations, and other visual brand supports.

 

“Walking in a rural area is the mode of last resort.”

When I asked my mom how walking fits into her life, this was her answer. My parents live in a rural town in South Carolina, on a road 5.8 miles from the center of town, 8.5 miles from their church, and 16 miles from the nearest grocery store.

“If someone doesn’t have a car, they’ll drive a scooter. Or a tractor. I know a man who rides a lawnmower with the blades removed. But you just don’t walk unless you absolutely have to, because it’s not safe. Biking either. There are rarely flat and debris-free shoulders. There are weeds, mud, ditches. You risk being hit by cars. People yell things at you. For me, the only safe choices [for walking] are indoor treadmills or driving to a gym.” I asked about the land, recalling when I used to explore pastures and forests as a child, walking miles a day. She said, “Everyone has ‘no trespassing’ signs now because they’re afraid of liability if you get hurt on their property. And during hunting season, it’s not safe to roam, either. That’s just the reality out here.”

At Active Living By Design, we envision a nation of healthy, equitable communities where everyone reaches their full potential. Ensuring active communities for all is a vital part of that vision. And when it comes to making that happen, the combination of strategies will look different in each community depending on its unique context. Two communities in a similar geographic setting, with comparable population and demographics, can still have radically different histories and cultural characteristics that influence their health. Yet common themes and lessons transcend even the most disparate places.

Like every community, my mother’s town has challenges that hold people back from achieving their full health potential. The school system struggles with high absenteeism. Obesity rates in the county are higher than average for the state, in a state with higher-than-average rates for the nation.

But this tiny town also has go-getters and problem-solvers who are shaking things up. As my colleague Joanne Lee recently pointed out in her blog, people are always, and by necessity, engaged in their communities. And by asking questions about where things are already working—the so-called “bright spots”—we create space for answers that we weren’t looking for or didn’t expect to hear.

I asked my mom where there are places to walk. She shared that, actually, this coming Sunday, all the local churches (“of all denominations!”) have organized an afternoon prayer walk. She explained that the local faith leaders already meet regularly to coordinate things like opening their gyms to children to play. The idea for the prayer walk emerged during one of their meetings because a local fire fighter, who was nearly killed in a car accident, regained the ability to walk after an initial diagnosis of paralysis. My mom explained, “When something like this happens in a small town, it rallies everyone to action. And we’re lucky, because even though we only have one stoplight, we do have four walking tracks within a 10-mile area.”

She went on, “What’s special about this place is that generally, if somebody has a suggestion, everybody says ‘great idea, let’s do it!” She offered another example: “The problem with kids missing school is that parents have already gone to work, the kids sleep through their alarm and miss the bus, and then we’re asking: who’s gonna pick up Johnny?” In response, school leaders organized a group of people who are willing to swing by the houses of kids who’ve missed the bus and take them to school. “Sort of like Uber,” my mom added. When speaking about the health and education challenges in her town, she said, “It all—and always—comes down to transportation.”

Walkability in rural places will not look like it does in urban or suburban ones. The answer will probably not be paved sidewalks connecting every house to every destination. If the danger of being on wild land during hunting season persists, it might not look like greenways, either. The approach my mom’s tiny town is trying looks something like a hybrid of ride-sharing and barn-raising. And as is so often the case, creative solutions have come from community members themselves, who understand their local challenges—and assets—better than anyone.

If it leads to a shift in how often she and her neighbors walk, my mom will be the first to report back. And you can be sure I’ll share about it here.

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The following resources describe additional strategies for increasing walkability and community health in rural places: