Can Walking Together Heal a Neighborhood?

Op-Ed: By walking together, the more than 2,000 participants of We Walk PHL not only improve their health. They also create a safe space to connect with their communities, history and nature.

(Photo courtesy We Walk PHL)

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Hunting Park is an 87-acre jewel of public land in the geographic heart of Philadelphia that has served the surrounding Hunting Park neighborhood since the 1850s. It is a refuge for the surrounding Hispanic and Black communities that have been unfairly burdened with the impacts of excessive heat, violence and decades of disinvestment. It’s also the location of one of the longest-running, most active walking groups in Philadelphia — a committed group of a dozen or so neighbors who meet regularly. By walking, they have not only improved their health but connected with each other and public space in ways nobody anticipated.

The walking group is part of We Walk PHL, a free, community-led weekly program with more than 2,000 participants in 17 different parks across the city. It is a partnership between the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the non-profit Fairmount Park Conservancy. We Walk PHL aims to help people experience the health and social benefits of walking (decreasing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, and improving heart health, among others). It focuses on communities with generational and ongoing racially-rooted, place-based trauma, economic violence, intentional disinvestment and environmental racism.

The program’s fundamentals are strategic and relatively simple. Walk leaders are recruited from nearby neighbors, park visitors and local community organizations. Volunteers are trained by program administrators and commit to leading one to three walks every week in their local parks during the program’s eight-week spring and fall seasons. However, many walking groups continue informally in the “offseason.”

Walk leaders are encouraged to involve participants in governance decisions about their own walking groups, helping the program weather challenges like the safety concerns that arose with the COVID-19 pandemic. As with many other parks programs, We Walk PHL went virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, with walk leaders serving as online program ambassadors, encouraging and modeling joyful movement, self-care, and responsible use of public spaces through the We Walk PHL Facebook Group. In the fall of 2020, walk groups resumed with safety precautions like limited group sizes, masking and physical distancing.

Perhaps the most important part of We Walk PHL is how it helps Black and brown Philadelphians mitigate trauma by connecting to the outdoors. Reconnecting with themselves, each other, and nature helps the collective and community healing in communities that have experienced traumas from centuries of forced agricultural labor, ongoing destruction of Black property, public lynchings, displacement, and the violence associated with excluding Black people from public space. Too often, this has left Black Americans disconnected from nature, stewardship, and the outdoors, and cut off from the associated physical and mental health benefits they can bring.

The two of us have worked to make We Walk PHL a success from the beginning. We have seen firsthand how the program helps members of Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities learn from each other, enabling the difficult but necessary conversations about the all-too-common personal experiences of place-based trauma in parks and public spaces. Participants have organized listening sessions on environmental and social justice, being safe in nature, and the value of occupying space, remaining open to new experiences, and establishing new relationships in the community.

Black and brown people walking together in Philadelphia’s green spaces has also led to new stewardship of public spaces. Many participants are finding new passions for outdoor hobbies like birding, plant identification, and nature walks, or simply discovering a newfound reverence for nature. Participants and walk leaders have volunteered to plant trees, weed garden beds, and clean up trash. Many others are developing new leadership skills, becoming advocates for more than just their walking group, but also for better walking infrastructure, more green spaces and public safety. One of the walk leaders from Philadelphia’s Clark Park is a vocal advocate for repairing the park’s broken sidewalks. After he testified at City Hall and wrote letters on the subject, many of these sidewalks have been fixed.

We Walk PHL has brought people together for the past five years, despite all kinds of obstacles. “My relationship with the various parks has rejuvenated my love for the outdoors, a feeling I had growing up as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout,” Phillip, a walk leader from Hunting Park, says. For Phillip, the parks give him a sense of “peace, beauty, and tranquility.”

We have seen firsthand the healing that happens in community green spaces. Our goal: to inspire Philadelphians whose well-being has been neglected to actively practice self-care, to advocate for investment in their communities, and to connect with each other.

On paper, the goal of We Walk PHL is to inspire consistent physical activity in green spaces, but the benefits of walking together have proven to be much bigger. With the desperate need for healing in communities all across our country, as simple as it may seem, a weekly walking group in the park down the street may just be a place to start.

Kelli McIntyre and Nicole Seahorn Hameen worked on building the We Walk PHL program from its inception in 2017 through December 2021.

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Kelli McIntyre is a planner at Thrivance Group and the former Health Justice and Livability Projects Manager at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Nicole Seahorn Hameen was a We Walk PHL walk leader and is now the Community Program Coordinator at the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Tags: philadelphiaparkscommunity engagementwalking

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