What is the closest shop to your church? Or place to eat lunch? The nearest residential street? School? Can you walk to these places after leaving a Sunday service? Can the church staff walk to any significant destinations during the week? Does it matter if you can or can’t?
More importantly, can people walk to your church? Could someone who can’t afford a car, or who can’t drive (including the elderly, the young, the disabled), get themselves to your church’s front door? Having a bus ministry or picking up shut-ins is a stop-gap measure. Fitting your church into a transportation system that works for everyone is a longer-term goal.
Often when people talk about the “walkability” of our towns and neighborhoods, they are looking through a strictly environmental lens: Towns and cities that provide the sidewalks, crosswalks, and downtown centers that promote pedestrian safety and access help reduce the air generated by automobile use. After all, the smog and particulates generated by cars are the major cause of asthma attacks in children and other respiratory diseases in many cities.
But walkability’s green attractions are just a part of a greater goal: healthy and flourishing communities. When people are able to walk through their days of work, school, worship, and errands, they are in closer contact with one another. They are more attuned to their local ecosystems and native species as they traverse the contours of the land and notice the plants growing by the sidewalk. They boost the economy of their hometowns by shopping at local businesses. They develop a healthier, more active lifestyle, not just because of the increase in their physical activity, but because they are more present in their surroundings and with their neighbors.
Churches have the potential to be the focal points of walkable, healthy communities. They can provide “Third Places” (locations that are neither home nor work, where communities can gather—like coffee shops) that are free, welcoming, and safe spaces for community members. They can congregate (that’s why we’re congregations, after all) the power of church members to support local businesses, advocate for responsible city planning that enhances pedestrian and cyclist safety, and provide an oasis of green space on their property. Rather than simply being a shell of a building that members travel to and from a few times a week, churches can reflect the loving kindness of their members in a host of creative ways that go beyond occasional outreach activities. The church building itself, especially when centered in amidst a walkable community, can be a living, breathing organism of good neighboring. It should be obvious that with greater engagement in our communities, churches attract those communities to the love and grace of Christ.
Step One: Look Up Your Church’s “Walkscore”
So to return to the first question, how “walkable” is your church? How easy is it for people living nearby to participate in your church without driving (and how easy is it for your church to participate in the life of the larger community)? There are a few easy ways to answer these questions. The first doesn’t even require you to get up from your chair: Visit www.walkscore.com and simply put your church’s address in the Walk Score box. Your score will be calculated by available data on stores, parks, schools, theaters, and public transit options in the surrounding area. You may be surprised by what you find. My church in suburban Illinois has a decent “Somewhat Walkable” score of 60, and I didn’t even know there was a park nearby.
Step Two: Audit Your Church and its Surroundings for Walkability
Unfortunately, what the Walk Score doesn’t calculate is the safety or ease of walking in your community. The score doesn’t depend on how broad streets are, if there are good sidewalks on those streets, if there are curb ramps for wheelchairs and strollers, how safe your neighborhood is, or what the topography of your area. To better calculate walkability in these terms, you’ll have to step away from the computer. Gather your church, or some interested members in your church, and take a walk from the front door of your church through the neighborhood with this Walkability Checklist in hand. The checklist suggests taking a child, but equally important is auditing from the perspective of a person who uses a wheelchair. If nobody in your group uses a wheelchair, take along a stroller and imagine pushing a child or moving yourself along in a wheelchair. Together you can assess how pleasant your walk is, if you have enough room to walk, and if the walk would be safe for people of any age and mobility. Be sure to include your church’s own parking lot in assessing walkability. Can you get a stroller from the street to the church building on a busy Sunday morning without worrying about parking lot traffic? Michael Abbaté points out the benefits of shade trees, bike racks, walkways, and bus stops. How does your church stack up?
Step Three: Do Something!
If you discover that your church and its surroundings have low walkability, that’s no reason to despair. Remember that churches, beyond being buildings, have the influential capacity to change themselves and their neighborhoods, not only through outreach and service, but by engaging with municipalities to foster greater walkability and community vitality—by advocating for sidewalks, crosswalks, broader streets, and business development. “Living on the Streets: The Role of the Church in Urban Renewal,” is a terrific free download that addresses some of the ways churches attract and foster community development not only by their physical presence, but also by the neighborhood engagement of their members. Adapt its observations and suggestions for your community, whether urban, suburban, or rural.
Even if we care about revitalizing our communities as individuals, we know that it’s hard to walk alone. Yet we are blessed to be a part of church families, which are often the strongest communities we know. Let the love and service that makes these communities so strong extend beyond the church building’s double doors, and see what it can do for God’s creation, and the health and flourishing of the community.
Look for much more on this topic in the future from Flourish. If you have questions or stories to share, post them in the comments and we’ll get an expert to answer them.
Related posts at Flourish
Living on the Streets: The Role of the Church in Urban Renewal
Centers for Disease Control pages on Designing and Building Healthy Places
National Center for Biking and Walking