On April 6, 2022 the Multnomah County Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program and Oregon Walks co-hosted an event called Take Back the Block. The event celebrated National Walking Day, Distracted Drivers Awareness Month, and National Public Health Week.
One of the main goals of the event was to draw attention to the new walking and biking infrastructure on NE Halsey Street and the parks in the area, places where people could get outside and get physical activity. The walk began in Gateway Discovery Park and crossed NE Halsey Street to Knott City Park before returning to Gateway Discovery Park.
Walking and rolling are sources of physical activity for many, and access to pedestrian infrastructure can have a direct impact on health. Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines highlights the importance of walking as one of the best ways to promote personal health, as “…there’s almost nothing that [walking] will not improve, in terms of your mental… and physical well being.”
The British National Health Service, which advises walking as a form of physical activity, reports that “…regular walking is proven to reduce your risk of some chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer. It can also improve your mood and reduce your risk of depression.”
The walk also highlighted some of the challenges of walking in Gateway and other Portland neighborhoods: sidewalkless streets. “Walkability of neighborhoods is essential. And particularly in communities of color…we see [a] lack of walkable sidewalks, we see lack of infrastructure for walking, we see lack of green space, and all of the things that contribute to health,” says District One Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran. According to the Portland Street Surfaces Map made by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), in 2018 roughly a third of the length of the city’s streets had incomplete or no sidewalk coverage.
This lack of pedestrian infrastructure has a disproportionate impact on people of color. The Fatal Pedestrian Crash Report (2021) by Oregon Walks states that “a majority (67%) of fatal pedestrian crashes occurred in areas where the percentage of people of color is greater than the citywide average.” Other groups disproportionately endangered by lack of pedestrian infrastructure are people with disabilities, people with low income, people experiencing houselessness, and older adults.
Oregon Walks Transportation Justice and Communications Manager Izzy Armenta emphasizes the importance of thinking about walking and rolling as physical activity but also as “a form of mobility that’s essential for everybody,” and says that this event was a way to start, and continue, a conversation about how to make a form of mobility that’s safe and accessible to everyone.
PBOT’s Interactive Crash Map shows nine pedestrian deaths so far this year, putting Portland on the path to continue a rise in pedestrian deaths from 2021, which saw 27 total pedestrian deaths. Changes to pedestrian infrastructure, such as lighting, could be a key part of stopping this rise. As stated in the Oregon Walks Crash Report, “street lighting was found to be an urgent issue with 79% of crashes occurring in the dark with potential lighting inadequacies identified at a majority of these locations,” and that from 2017 to 2019, “100% of pedestrian fatalities of those identified as Black occurred when it was dark.”
“Improving lighting, road signage…[creating] safer routes to local destinations, whether that be the local clinic, the nearest church or nearest grocery store” are some of the ways that Taylor Ford, Communications Specialist at Multnomah County REACH, says pedestrian infrastructure can be improved in order to promote walking. Through working with nonprofit organizations, like Oregon Walks, and other government entities, REACH states on their website that they hope to “ensure that the African-American and African immigrant/refugee experience is uplifted through this work and that the Black community is able to have an influence on any future models for urban design and transportation policy.”