The Space to Run: Walkable Places

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My Capitol Heights running route.

 

I love Ted Talks. They are a great way to learn something new in a short amount of time or be inspired to live my best life. There’s something for everybody. I was searching for a new topic the other day, and I ran across one about a city that lost a million pounds. Hmmmm … that’s interesting. I listened to the below Ted Talk:

The Mayor of Oklahoma City, Nick Cornett, tells a funny, engaging story about his journey in leading his city in a metamorphosis of weighty proportions. He tells how Oklahoma City landed on one of those “lists” for one of the country’s fattest cities. He had his own personal journey of getting healthy that awakened him to a shocking revelation about his city. The past mayors had done a great job of revitalizing the city with art centers and great things to do. But, what he realized was, “We had created a city with a great quality of life…. if you happened to be a car.” The city was built for traveling by automobile … not by foot … or bike … or any other health-improving source of transportation. You can listen to his story to see what happened in Oklahoma City, but it got me thinking about my current city and past cities where I’ve lived.

When I first moved to Memphis, I didn’t think it was a very walkable, bikeable or runnable city. I lived in the suburbs. There was one park, Shelby Farms, that was teeming with trails and outdoor active opportunities, but I had to drive there. I made great use of it, but I longed to be able to walk out my front door for my run without putting my life in danger. I eventually moved to Midtown Memphis, and I found much more walkable communities there where I could run all over the city on sidewalks and the Riverwalk downtown. By the time I moved away from Memphis, a group had transformed Memphis’s walkability by building new greenways and trails from downtown all the way out to that suburb where I felt trapped. I could easily run a 15-miler on both wooded trails and paved trails without ever having to double-back at all. It was amazing the sense of freedom I felt. I also noticed more and more people taking advantage of the greenways to walk their dogs, spend time with their families and attend outdoor events that included running, biking and walking. Memphis…. also on those lists on a frequent basis … was making progress.

I moved down here to Baton Rouge last year. I spent awhile in Denham Springs before I got settled, and I knew within the first week I could not exist out there. If I had to run more than 1/4 mile, I had to run on circles on a track or in the few subdivisions that had sidewalks. Otherwise, I was relegated to running on the roads amidst fast-moving traffic  or run on steep embankments where I was in danger of twisting an ankle and falling in front of traffic anyway. I mainly drove as far as I could out to an old country road between Watson and Montpelier to run my distance without heavy traffic. Now, I live in Baton Rouge, and, honestly, it’s not much better. I could easily walk to work because it’s so close. However, I have to cross a busy street with no crosswalk or street signals, so I drive every day. Somehow, I lucked out and moved close to Capitol Heights which is a neighborhood street that was converted to a one-way with bike lanes a few years back. I’ve actually settled into great little place where I can get a 3-miler in with relative ease.

I’ve run into an issue with longer runs, though. A popular place to run is the University Lakes over by LSU. Even though it is a wildly popular running area with some sidewalks and paths for runners, I have to run most of it on the roads with traffic. After listening to this talk and reflecting on the areas to walk and run in Baton Rouge, I had to run the other night. I was very aware of the safety of what I was doing. I had two close calls with cars in a one hour run. In one, a homeowner had luckily put some stepping stones next to the curb, and I was able to sidestep out of the way. In the second one, I was running facing traffic – which is what runners are supposed to do – and a car came up behind me as they were passing a cyclist who was cycling with traffic – as they are supposed to do.  My right arm actually bristled with the closeness of the car as it passed me with about 2 inches of space. I realized I had gotten used to these close calls… deeming them a normal part of being active in this city.

There are a few paths in the city. The levee has a nice path downtown. However, it is not shaded. In the summer, it is not comfortable in the daytime, and I can’t run with my dog because there’s no water close enough for her to cool off. I run down by the state capitol and in Spanish Town where the neighborhood is very walkable. Otherwise, I get in my car and drive an hour or more away to a place where there are trails that allow my dog. That’s another barrier that I’ve encountered down here. The BREC parks around here mostly don’t allow dogs on the trails. I’ve never encountered this anywhere I’ve lived. One day I drove out to the St. Tammany Trace to run only to find that dogs are not allowed. I was stunned. I’m a single woman, and I got a dog for protection on those long runs and night or morning runs where I’m at risk. Besides, my dog needs exercise. I”m not going to go for a run and leave her just because it’s a challenge for me to find a place. So, we go to the University Lakes a lot.

There are so many advantages to having a walkable city. Instead of sitting inside watching TV after dinner, a sidewalk is a great option for family entertainment, exercise and socializing with neighbors. The increased outside foot traffic is a deterrent for crime. It creates more eyes and ears to notice people in the neighborhood up to no good. Being active builds confidence, provides cheap entertainment, and improves health. Even the smaller towns where I’ve lived had greenways close to neighborhoods. In Chesterton IN, we had a Greenway right next to my country home that went for 60 or more miles across small towns, Chicago suburbs and, eventually, into the city. We could bike, run, or walk for as long as we wanted. We stopped and had lunch in restaurants along the way, shopped in local businesses and met all kinds of people. My ex even sold his motorcycle because he wanted to focus more on healthy activities. We just didn’t have the time to do both.

A google search informed me that Baton Rouge is making some positive changes, and there are groups that are working toward making Baton Rouge a more walkable city. I know that Louisiana is on those lists that the Oklahoma City Mayor abhorred. When Momma would come visit, and we’d walk on greenways across the country, she’d say that she wished they built that kind of stuff down here. I didn’t really get it until I moved here. I’ve begun to realize that the people who are active down here are rock stars. Not only do they get out and do stuff that is against the grain, but they do it in spite of a lot of barriers. Street lighting, sidewalks, greenways and green spaces are important for the health of the city, but they also keep young people with educations, skills and experience from choosing more livable cities. Everybody wins. Let’s keep moving, Baton Rouge. It’s vital.

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