Talk the Walk: Engaging Municipal Leaders to Support Walkability in Thunder Bay
“How do we get our councillors to care about walkability?” This was the question Thunder Bay’s Walkability Committee struggled over in the summer of 2014. With a municipal election coming up in the fall, it seemed like a good time to start thinking about ways to engage municipal candidates, and eventually our newly elected officials.
After several meetings, the Committee came up with the idea of launching an advocacy campaign with the goal of making councillors and the public aware of the importance of walkability. The campaign would involve several components, including surveying all of the municipal candidates, educating the public, collecting community feedback, and hosting an event with City Council.
In September 2014, the Walkability Committee surveyed all 51 municipal candidates on their perceptions of the importance of walkability and asked for a commitment to supporting walkable infrastructure and policy in Thunder Bay. Questions were asked via email and included: How do you think transportation is linked to health? If you are elected to council, what will you do to make our streets safer and more accessible for walkers/cyclists of all ages and abilities? 38 of the 51 candidates provided responses to the survey, which were then posted publically on the Thunder Bay District Health Unit website.
The next step was to build support for a healthy built environment and spur community action. We needed to get voters to read the candidates responses on the website, and hopefully vote for a candidate that supports walkability in our community.
Walkability… what is it?
It was important to the Committee to explain to the public and candidates that walkability means more than sidewalks, and has more than just health benefits. To do this we framed walkability in a way that resonated with residents. The Committee emphasized that a walk-friendly community means building a safer, more equitable, prosperous and sustainable community for everyone.
To spread these messages, we used social media - predominantly Facebook. We designed a series of paid Facebook posts that were shared for one month leading up to the election. Each post described a benefit of walkability and also had a link to the candidate survey results. At the end of the election, all but one of the elected council members had responded to the survey. All of the responses received from the current council indicated support for walkability.
Community input is key!
After the election, the Committee didn’t want City Council to forget about walkability and the commitments they had agreed to. Through a survey on Facebook, we asked the community to tell us about areas in the city where they encounter barriers or challenges to walking, biking, or taking transit. From the survey we were able to identify particularly challenging areas that members of our community navigate on an everyday basis. The intent was to take City Council to the areas that the community identified, explain the difficulties that people experience get around, and make the case for improving walkable infrastructure.
A plan was made to host an event for new councillors in early 2015, where we would take them on a tour of Thunder Bay using only active transportation. It was very important to the Walkability Committee to let the public know about the event, and that it was based on actual community input. All of the advertisements we had for the event indicated that the tour was based directly on what we heard from the community.
Next Steps: Active Tour and Workshop
In March 2015 six city councillors, representatives from the Walkability Committee, and several community experts took to the streets on an active tour of Thunder Bay. This was the first component of a two-part event we called “Next Steps”. Landscape architect and urban designer Paul Young (Public Space Workshop) led the group from one side of the town to the other, highlighting the impact of walkable infrastructure on safety, accessibility, and food access. Representatives from the Accessibility Advisory Committee and staff from City Engineering department also shared their perspectives.
Participants experienced the struggles of trekking through the snow with a stroller and groceries, and learned about the everyday challenges of walking through town with a disability. The tour aimed to develop a common understanding of the walkability issues in Thunder Bay, and what to consider when new construction or reconstruction projects come up.
"Getting out and discussing intersections in minus 15 degree weather, with cold wind blowing, snow on the ground, and patches of ice and slush, was great for revealing the reality of pedestrians. It helped our Council better understand how hard the design of infrastructure can make it for people, especially those with mobility issues or families."
-Adam Krupper, Mobility Coordinator, City of Thunder Bay (participant in active tour)
Later in the evening, Young delivered a keynote talk to members of the community, highlighting safety, health, improved quality of life, and building up our local economy.Community members were encouraged to think of ways to engage their neighbours, as well as engage their councillors on walkability matters within their wards.
Overall the events were very successful, and several councillors indicated that they found the tour a valuable and eye-opening experience. Barriers still exist in the community when it comes to gathering support for walkable infrastructure. Thunder Bay has a predominant “car-culture”. With many residents living rurally or semi-rurally, travel by single-occupancy vehicles is very common. However, progress is still being made and we feel that many of the councillors understand the importance of walkability. The Committee will continue to advocate for a healthier built environment, and is currently involved in identifying potential pedestrian crossover locations for installation in 2017.