By DAN TUOHY
New Hampshire Union Leader
There’s a movement afoot.
In an auto-centric society — this state of 1.3 million people registered 835,344 passenger vehicles, 341,865 trucks, and 77,023 motorcycles last year — communities are exploring ways to get people out of their cars and inspire them to walk.
They’re called “walkable communities,” and this caravan of livability and sustainability concepts arrives in Manchester for a unique workshop and presentation May 3. Dan Burden, an internationally recognized authority on the subject of human-powered transportation, will discuss solutions that can be adapted to neighborhoods across New Hampshire.
The idea is to shoehorn walkability into a transportation system — local and state — that relies heavily on cars and trucks, said Jack Munn, chief planner for the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, one of the sponsors of the program called Retro-Fitting NH Neighborhoods.
An ability to walk to the park or a nearby business or school creates more of a sense of place, Munn said during a visit to Crystal Lake Park in Manchester, the neighborhood in which Burden will oversee two “walking audits” May 3 before giving his presentation that evening at The Derryfield Country Club.
“Basically,” Munn said, “we’re looking at ways to get people off their couch and out of their house.”
Partners in the project include the city of Manchester’s health department and its parks and recreation department, Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL-NH), and the Healthy NH Foundation.
It is important to give a neighborhood an identity and help people have a connection to their neighborhood, said Jaime Hoebeke, a senior public health specialist for the city of Manchester.
The Crystal Lake neighborhood was chosen for the “walking audits” because it is removed from the urban core of Manchester and is more typical of a New Hampshire town.
It also shows a challenge common in some communities. Joining Munn and Hoebeke at the park, Jessica Fleming noted it is a popular spot in summer, but one that everybody seems to drive to. Fleming, parks planner for the Manchester Parks, Recreation & Cemetery Department, said walkability remains a huge selling point for a community.
“Walkability creates a desirability in itself,” she said.
It is seen, too, as part antidote to rising obesity rates. Walkability will vary neighborhood to neighborhood, but there can be ways to increase physical activity, said Manchester Deputy Health Director Anna Thomas.
The multi-agency partnership will look at everything, from safety to traffic, and listen to residents who may have concerns or a perception about a particular area, she said.
“We’re essentially creating neighborhood action plans,” Thomas said. “Every neighborhood has a different set of needs, a different set of priorities.”
Terry Johnson, director of HEAL-NH, said land use and community planning is critical for a town or city to embrace “complete streets,” a concept that streets are designed to support all modes of transportation, from walking and cycling to cars and public transit.
“There are definitely some challenges, but there are some definite positives,” Johnson said of street planning in New Hampshire.
Some older towns in the state were designed with a town center, so that services are close by. But like states across the country, New Hampshire communities have become more sprawling. The positives Johnson mentioned include better sidewalks, signs and crosswalks and the embrace of safe routes to school programs.
Some municipalities are focused on improvements, but it is a particular challenge in rural communities with constraints on budgets and planning and building resources, according to Johnson.
When you create an environment and implement policies, people will take advantage of it, Johnson said.
“It makes it easier for people to make a healthy choice,” he said.
Retro-Fitting NH Neighborhoods
The evening presentation is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on May 3 at the Derryfield Country Club, 628 Mammoth Road in Manchester. It is $15 per person, including dinner, but it is free to Manchester residents. Registration deadline is April 30.
For more information, call the Southern NH Planning Commission at 669-4664 or Manchester Health Department at 624-6466.
See Manchesternh.gov/health for more information on registering for the two walking tours in the Crystal Lake neighborhood.