The City and Borough of Sitka became the first town in Alaska to earn a bronze-level Walk Friendly Communities designation, when the program announced eight new WFC awards (four bronze and four silver) on Tuesday, Oct. 29, from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) offices in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Once again, our community is miles ahead of other Alaska towns in its ability to take healthy steps,” Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell said. “The Walk Friendly Communities designation was a goal chosen at last year’s Sitka Health Summit, and it was a good one. This is a great achievement. And now, as a result of the award, we have the necessary steps outlined for us to continue to improve our policies, programs and standards. Congratulations to the team working to achieve these high standards.”
The WFC award is the result of a 2012 Sitka Health Summit community wellness project, where community members decided they wanted to improve and recognize Sitka as a walkable community. The Walk Sitka work group followed a national template developed by the Walk Friendly Communities program designed to help cities and towns become more walkable. The community assessment tool/application (click here for Sitka’s application) helps communities identify their walking strengths and weaknesses by asking dozens of questions in the following categories — community profile, current status of walking, planning, education and encouragement, engineering, enforcement, and evaluation.
The WFC program is similar to the Bicycle Friendly Community program. Sitka also is the first BFC town in Alaska, earning a bronze-level designation in 2008 and a renewal bronze award in 2012 (as Sitka Health Summit projects).
“When we started this project, we wanted to complete this application as much for the process and help finding our strengths and weaknesses as for the award,” said Charles Bingham, who helped coordinate the Walk Sitka group and wrote the WFC application. “We’re happy to win the award, but we’re also happy for the feedback we received to help make Sitka a more walkable community.”
Walk Friendly Communities is a national recognition program developed to encourage towns and cities across the U.S. to establish or recommit to a high priority for supporting safer walking environments, according to the program’s website. The WFC program recognizes communities that are working to improve a wide range of conditions related to walking, including safety, mobility, access, and comfort.
“The majority of trips in the car are for less than three miles, and if we can encourage people to walk or bike instead we promote a culture of wellness,” Bingham said. “Not only are people getting heart-healthy physical health benefits from walking, there are benefits for mental and emotional health when you take a walk in the woods. In addition, by walking and biking we reduce the amount of car exhaust we have to breathe, and there are economic benefits when we have walkable communities. There also are increased social connections when people, because neighbors can chat with each other instead of being barricaded in a steel box on wheels.”
The eight new Walk Friendly Communities for Fall 2013 were Asheville, N.C.; Burlington, Vt.; Montclair, N.J.; and Tallahassee, Fla.; at the silver level; and Atlanta; Bloomington, Ind.; La Cross, Wis.; and Sitka; at the bronze level. They bring the nation’s total to 44 awardees in the program at four levels — bronze, silver, gold, and platinum (Seattle is the lone platinum WFC). In 2011, Juneau received an honorable mention in the program but has not earned a full WFC designation. The Walk Friendly Communities designation is good for five years, and Sitka doesn’t have to renew its award until the spring of 2018.
“Cities of all sizes continue to realize the importance of being walkable,” said Carl Sundstrom, WFC program manager. “The latest eight communities to earn the Walk Friendly designation are representative of nearly all cities in the U.S., ranging from a major metropolitan area to mid-sized college towns to one of the nation’s oldest communities. The rate at which the program continues to grow is exciting, and I look forward to sharing the successes of communities across the nation with each additional application round.”
The Walk Friendly Communities program has two application periods each year. Each application is reviewed by at least three reviewers to provide a fair assessment of the community and technical feedback on how to improve the community’s walkability.
According to Sitka’s community report card and feedback (posted at the bottom of this article):
“In reviewing your application, there were several areas we were particularly impressed with, including:
- A consistently high walking mode share for a town of this size, indicating that people are able to walk safely and comfortably. It is equally important to see the low (vehicle-pedestrian) crash rate.
- The level of planning effort and community support for Sitka’s trail system, which provides important recreation opportunities for residents and visitors.
- Slow speed limits downtown and in school zones, paired with pedestrian countdown signals at Sitka’s two main intersections.
“Sitka has exhibited a desire to become a community that supports active transportation. The application to the Walk Friendly Communities program is an endorsement of that desire and it is our hope that the feedback and information we provide can help your community improve in this regard. We also hope that, by identifying Sitka as a Bronze Walk Friendly Community and highlighting some of these impressive programs on our website, other communities can follow your example and build their own successful programs.”
The Walk Friendly Communities program was launched in October 2010. It is funded by FedEx and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It is coordinated by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC), which is maintained by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center under a cooperative agreement with the FHWA.
The next WFC application period opens on Friday, Nov. 1, and the application deadline is Dec. 15. Interested communities can go to http://www.walkfriendly.org/, where they can learn more about the program and review the community assessment tool.