The key to more walking? More places to sit

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2007 - 9:19 PM

That's the logic behind Ramsey County's 1,000 Benches program aimed at improving health and community.

The bench, an ages-old device to keep one's bum off the ground, stands tall in the minds of many who plan parks and communities. Ramsey County leaders are betting that a few such seats can improve health, ease transportation and foster neighborly interaction. The 1,000 Benches program, approved last week by the County Board, will provide money to communities that want to create "pathways to health."

The goal is to space the benches in such a way to make walking routes from residential areas to parks, commercial districts or transit lines.

Nationally, benches are seen as amenities to help get a broader range of people out and about. They can also be magnets for crime, if allowed. It all comes down to use and planning.

"Typically, people think of benches as stationary," said Commissioner Jan Parker, who led the effort. "But the idea is to get people moving and connect destinations."

Parker got the idea a few years ago after taking walks with her 89-year-old mother, who couldn't go very far without having places to sit and rest. Parker helps head Active Living Ramsey County, which promotes physical activity and environments that foster it.

In 2005, the group commissioned a survey of 1,200 residents, half in St. Paul and half in the suburbs, to assess how much they exercise. Fifty-seven percent of St. Paul residents and 32 percent of suburban residents said they considered themselves "inactive." Almost 75 percent of both groups cited obstacles -- such as poor street lighting, fear of crime and lack of sidewalks -- as key health issues in the county.

Think the New Jersey shore

Parker thought about those results, her mother's activity and the nation's rising obesity rates. Benches, she thought, will get people walking.

But a bench is for sitting, right?

"Benches are as critical to an active community as are crosswalks and sidewalks and bike lanes," said Bob Chauncey, director of policy analysis for the National Center for Bicycling and Walking in Chestertown, Md.

He cited New Jersey shore boardwalks and historic Williamsburg, Va. -- "you'll see benches everywhere" -- as two places that attract scads of people and movement.

"You want to get people out and about, but you don't want to intimidate them," he said. Instead of making people walk long distances, why not give them a place to sit, to enjoy the fresh air and watch what's going on around them, he said.

Of course, the idea of getting more people out and about creates crime concerns.

Benches can indeed attract criminal activity, from graffiti to drug dealing. But they also can be great crime deterrents, said Robert Otterstatter, senior law enforcement trainer for the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington.

If benches are placed in clean, walkable areas, he said, they will be used by people who take pride in their community. Criminals don't like to be seen in the act, so when people are out, they will stay away, he said.

It's critical, though, to keep the benches maintained and to report any suspicious activity immediately, Otterstatter said.

Ramsey County is choosing to focus on the positive aspects.

Commissioners approved $613,000 from the solid waste fund to be spent on 1,000 benches over three years for the program, which is open to all Ramsey County communities and is now accepting applications.

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