Rural woRx – America Walks’ Efforts to Get Rural Communities Moving

America Walks is a 20-year-old national non-profit organization dedicated to empowering communities and advocates to create safe, accessible, and enjoyable places to walk and be physically active for everyone. The organization provides a diverse network of over 30,000 individual advocates and hundreds of local, state, and national organizations, with the tools, resources, and experts needed to build capacity, gain experiences, and successfully promote walking and walkability.

As we work and engage with our network, it is becoming increasingly clear that walking and walkability are not just for urban areas. Small towns, suburbs, and rural communities are finding their own way into the walking movement. At America Walks, we are currently working with and assisting, more small towns and rural areas then any other time in our 20 years. In fact, the second most frequently asked question we receive, after “how do you get it funded” is, “What resources and ideas work for rural areas?”

The answer to that question comes largely from the communities we work with and learning networks that we have facilitated. We know that the success in creating safe, accessible, and enjoyable places to walk and be active stems directly from the strength and success of the thousands of local change agents who work in every State in the USA. Our programming, including online webinars, the Walking College Fellowship, a Learning Center with tested toolkits and resources, are all designed to build safe walkable conditions in communities of every size.

One of our more popular projects is our Community Change funding program which awards small grants to community organizations, city officials, and other walking champions to help implement creative, resident-led, projects they believe will get their communities on their feet. These grants help to catalyze grassroots efforts that promote walking and make walkability a reality everywhere.

No one knows better the unique challenges of addressing walkability in rural communities then the people on the ground. For advocates in small, rural communities, these Community Change Grants have had a huge impact on addressing otherwise overlooked or under-prioritized issues. The grants might be small, but each of our grantees demonstrates that small and catalytic does help to move the needle toward more walkable rural communities.

Don’t take our word for it— check out some of the work being done as part of this program.

Central Valley Health District, Jamestown, North Dakota

Central Valley Health District is striving to improve the walkability of Jamestown, North Dakota. For their project, they purchased signs to be placed at existing walking trails. The signage will match an existing downtown walking trail called “Get Fit & Explore.” This signage worked to increase the amount of people walking and experiencing the trails. They also established indoor walking spaces, including the Civic Center and community activity center, so that community members would have spaces to be active during the winter.

City of Burke, Burke, South Dakota

Burke, SD is a community with a population of 604 residents. The grant was used to implement the first crosswalk in Burke, SD. In a collaborative effort with the Burke Wellness Coalition, the City of Burke and Gregory County Commissioners, the grant will be used to create a crosswalk at a high-traffic area. It will be located at the intersection of the residential street and county highway where the City Park, assisted living and school sports complex are located. The benefits of the crosswalk project include increased pedestrian safety for those crossing at the intersection, encouraging additional physical activity than there had been previously.

City of Okolona, Okolona Mississippi

The City of Okolona, Mississippi is a small rural community in northeast Mississippi. The population of 2,800 shares a paved walking path with Chickasaw County that is used with some regularity. When the grant was applied for as part of our 2016 program, the path was going to be closed for several months because of construction. The applicants were concerned that as a result our families do not have a safe, secure walking area. The grant was used to provide a secure, paved walking area in an area adjacent to a low-income housing complex. The paved walking area will complement the community garden which the residents care for and provide a safe area for walking.

Each year, we see hundreds of grant applications for everything from walking clubs to support for infrastructure changes, applications that represent the small changes that can make a big difference in the health, activity, and engagement of a community. The program, supported with funding from organizations and foundations across the US, has allowed America Walks to work with dozens of passionate local activist and officials to successfully promote walking and improve walkability. A high percentage of these applications come from small towns and rural areas. In the past three years, we have heard from at least 300 mayors from towns with populations between 600 and 2000 residents proposing events, wayfinding and beautification projects to help make safe, walkable places in rural spaces. Unfortunately, we can only fund a tiny percent of those who apply.

America Walks welcomes the opportunity to partner with other organizations and funders to increase the number of rural communities that we can support to improve walking conditions and promoting healthy behaviors. If you wish to learn more or speak with America Walks staff on helping to get rural communities on the walking path, please email Executive Director Kate Kraft at kkraft@americawalks.org.