Photo by avlxyz – Flickr
Victoria Walks is a walking health promotion charity in the Australian state of Victoria with a simple but important mission: to promote health by increasing the number of people who walk every day. Managed by an independent voluntary board, Victoria Walks is funded through the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation–VicHealth–which identified a need for a separate body to represent walkers.
The idea for Victoria Walks came about because studies have shown that walking can make a significant and positive impact on people’s health and is the easiest of all physical activities to integrate into everyday life. Walking can help prevent and control diseases linked to physical inactivity, such as diabetes and heart disease, and is the best option for inactive people who want to change their lifestyles. In addition, it is free, does not require any special equipment and is accessible to everybody.
After its inception in 2009, Victoria Walks initially focused its message on walking as an alternative means of transport in local neighbourhoods, encouraging people to walk to local shops and schools rather than use their cars. However, the organisation has since widened its focus to encourage all sorts of walking activity, whether for exercise, for enjoyment and recreation, or as a form of transport.
As well as promoting walking and its health benefits, Victoria Walks plays a key leadership role in developing and influencing public policy that can assist communities to walk more.
As Victoria Walks’ Executive Officer Dr Ben Rossiter says, “People walking for leisure, pleasure or purpose are a marker of a healthy community.” That is why Dr Rossiter is vocal about the need for urban design and planning to create residential areas that are amenable to walking. This translates into advocating for services such as schools and shops to be situated within walking distance to homes, and for local employment opportunities for residents to be accessible by foot. It also means the installation of footpaths and pedestrian crossings, the planting of shady trees along roadways, the provision of adequate public transport services to complement pedestrian routes, and a reduction in the volume and speed of vehicular traffic to make walking safer.
Devising walking-friendly neighbourhoods, according to Dr Rossiter, also means rethinking the relationship between built and natural spaces, embracing the need for medium rather than low density housing in an effort to end the urban sprawl and to reduce the distances between destinations. It also means accepting smaller private spaces and instead demanding more and better quality public spaces where people can mingle and connect with neighbours and where their children can explore through play, learn and get their hands dirty.
As well as input into policy development, especially around planning, sustainability and recreation, Victoria Walks provides tangible support to local groups via its website and toolkit, aimed to encourage residents to join together to take action to make their neighbourhoods more suitable for walking. These ‘Walkability Action Groups’, or WAGs, are provided with information on how to conduct a local audit of ‘walkability’ as well as advice on how to run meetings, advocate to governments, obtain funding, and attract support for local campaigns.
A recent initiative of Victoria Walks is the development of an online mapping facility, or ‘walking app’, which will enable enthusiasts across the state to access a variety of walking maps, covering suburban, rural and parkland areas. Users will be able to search for a walk by location, accessibility or even by popularity. Also available will be photographs of the walk as well as points of special interest and any landmarks or hazards to be found along the way. Once users have selected a walk, they will be able to print directions and share maps with others via Facebook, Twitter and email. After completing one of the walks, they will have the opportunity to rate the walk and log their comments for the benefit of other prospective walkers.
The online mapping facility will not just be about accessing maps. In addition to offering a range of established walking routes provided by councils, recreation and tourism bodies, it will also allow walkers to create maps of their own favourite walks which can then be shared with other users.
The mapping facility will be available by mid-June 2011 and Ben Rossiter hopes that the technology will engage a new generation of walkers and prove to be a useful school resource.
“Those who when young take up healthy behaviours, such as walking, are more likely to continue these practices as adults,” Dr Rossiter says.
Given that since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of children walking, mainly due to them being driven to and from school by car, this new technology could help rekindle enthusiasm for walking among children.
Victoria Walks is not alone in its desire to foster communities where people choose to walk. It is a voting member–the only one in Australia–of the International Federation of Pedestrians, a Swiss-based UN-accredited organisation which represents the interests of pedestrians at the international level. It is also a participant in Walk21, an annual international conference on walking and liveable communities, and a signatory to the International Charter of Walking.