NAACP: A Walkable Built Environment Is a “Premier Civil Rights Issue”

The shooting at the Capitol yesterday, which took place as Walking Summit advocates were there lobbying lawmakers, underscores a very important point: Street safety isn’t just about sidewalks and traffic. It’s also about crime.

That’s one aspect that walkability advocates often overlook when discussing improvements to make an area “safer” for pedestrians. “For us, the conversation is along the lines of ‘reclaiming the streets,’” Niiobli Armah told me. Armah is the NAACP’s manager of childhood obesity for their health and wellness initiatives.

Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Photo: ##

It might surprise some that the 104-year-old civil rights organization has a focus on walkable and bikeable neighborhoods. But it shouldn’t. It stems from the organization’s work on childhood obesity. Nineteen percent of black children between two and five are obese. Black high school girls are two-and-a-half times more likely to be obese than their white counterparts.

“We think of health as the premier civil rights advocacy issue,” Armah said. “We advocate for the built environment so that students can have opportunities for safe physical activity in their neighborhoods.”

In some places, there’s a wide racial gap for health indicators. Obesity rates are going down overall, but they’re still rising in communities of color. Armah says it’s a social justice issue. “Regardless of what community you live in, you should have access to healthy eating and active living,” he said. And that means making sure the built environment is conducive to walking and biking.

In addition to trying to install streetlights, crosswalks, and traffic calming devices, residents have to address concerns about personal safety, which can outweigh concerns about traffic safety. Armah said they work on those issues with residents, often incorporating the same tactics used to boost walking and physical fitness.

“If there’s a park that historically has been known as a drug dealer haven, how can we not only get policies around lighting and extra patrolling, but actually get programming in the park and get organizations to provide services in the park setting?” Armah said. “Remove the stigma. Put the word out that this is a safe haven. If you have a group of grandmothers in a walking club, the research shows that typically violence is not going to occur as blatantly when there’s use of the park by people not participating in the violence.”

Once crime and car traffic are tamed, residents of color can look at these safety improvements and fear that gentrification will end up driving them out of the community. Armah says the NAACP works with those people to involve them in the fight for safer community features.

The NAACP works more at the local level than at the national level, but its staffers in Washington do monitor the federal transportation bill, with walkability and active transportation as their most significant policy goal. PolicyLink and the Transportation Equity Network also focus on transportation, often from the perspective of improving transit access for populations that lack it.

15 thoughts on NAACP: A Walkable Built Environment Is a “Premier Civil Rights Issue”

  1. I agree that the built environment is a civil rights issue, but I doubt it’s the premier one. That would go to education equality/education quality. Without the latter, the poor remain poor even with a wide sidewalk to walk on.

  2. Many urban low income people, regardless of race, must give up the notion that an expensive car (loan payments, insurance, maintenance, parking/tickets, fuel) is not essential for everyone; it’s just a luxury (‘bling’) for some and that trick of the automobilist industry keeps people poor. Some parents need to own personal cars, but others could get by more frugally and practically with rental/car share services. Poor black people aren’t new to bikes, they just need safe facilities so they have greater incentive to pull them out of their attics and basements and use them with safer infrastructure.

  3. I’m very glad this is finally getting some attention. Here in Atlanta, we’re talking about the recent study showing that we have the lowest rate of economic mobility and that it is largely due lack of transportation to quality employment opportunities for lower income brackets. There are some really important questions or concerns to address though – fears of economic displacement described above; cultural differences of opinion regarding quality of life that trend along race, income, and generational lines; different opinions on what constitutes a safe walking or bicycling environment; and the familiar conflicts between transportation that serves through commuters – by any mode – versus what serves the neighborhood.

  4. The following quote is shows the knee-jerk reaction that betrays a very simplistic and idealogical view of the situation:
    “In Portland a few months later, the uproar was over a spate of new apartment buildings constructed
    without on-site parking, thanks to a city exemption from parking quotas
    for buildings near frequent transit lines. Indignant neighbors protested,
    intent on keeping newcomers out of “their” parking places. It was
    classic parking politics — intense, irrational, expressed as righteous
    rage at developers allegedly “dumping their problems” on the

    Wow, ignorance prevails. Studies commssioned by the city showed that 75% of renters in Portland have cars. I have zero respect for this analysis. As for social justice, the developers are charging outrageous sums for these little no parking apartments, and people of color are being pushed out to the suburbs.

    Enjoy your over-simplifications and your dis-comfort with citizen action. Also, you East Coasters should not talk about places you’ve never been and clearly don’t understand.

    Your crush on Alan Shoup is intense and irrational and religious in its fervor. Lame!

  5. Many middle class east coast types, regardless of race, must give up the notion that they get to tell people of color and poor people how to live, especially when they don’t understand why blue collar people need cars.

  6. In what way is that an ignorant statement? Are the parking spaces in front of existing home and apartments reserved for the current land-owners? Is there a market for people to live car-free (or use car-sharing services) in urban areas? Can you define how much is too much for these “little, no parking” apartments (especially if people could live without the $7,000/year cost of owning a car)? Is the high price of these housing units because there aren’t enough housing units in the highly desirable areas near jobs, parks, transit, etc?

  7. So you’re option is to tell people they need a car to earn a living and access daily needs through a built-environment catering to one mode of transportation? No one is saying low-income folks (anywhere in the country, not just on the east coast – I live in Minneapolis) HAVE to live car-free. Only that the built environment should be safe, well-lit, big enough, and have facilities that allow them to get around by other modes (walking, biking, transit, etc) safely and efficiently. And if that means our streets need to be reconfigured over the next 10-15 years in such a way that inconveniences car drivers (at their current volume) by a whole 2-3 minutes per journey, then so be it. It’s not rocket science.

  8. In the District of Columbia, the Mayor and others herald that 1k people are moving into the city each month, the fact most elected officials leave out is that 4k are moving in and 3k are moving out. Those moving out are primarily poor and African American or other minorities — Latinos, gays, single women, etc. They are moving to the suburbs where — if they don’t have them already — they will have to rely on expensive private cars even more to get around, take their children to school, access services and shopping. The first thing those moving into the city (who don’t have trust funds or exclusive off street car spaces) give up are private cars. In dynamic urban areas, convenient access to jobs, amenities and schools all make expensive private car ownership unnecessary. Smart people take advantage of opportunities to save money. Moving to the suburbs is not always the best alternative. Choosing to be a single parent also makes life more challenging and expensive.

  9. The description of the opposition and their motives in un-thruthful. I know- I was there. Plus, 75% of renters have cars.
    The high rents are part of a real estate bubble. They are out of reach in a city where all the baristas have college degrees in the humanities.

    The new density is small apartments plus bars. We have a high alcoholism rate here, but at least people crash their bikes and not their cars (people drive to work and bike to drink).

  10. I don’t necessarily disagree with your proposals. It’s just that some density activists ARE pressuring people to give up cars, at least in Portland.

    My concern is that everyone- not just devotees of Alan Shoup- has a say.

  11. Walkability is also an issue in the African-American community because more African-Americans walk to work than other groups, and because many rural and quasi-rural African-American communities lack sidewalks. African-Americans also suffer more from car-pedestrian crashes.

  12. I can’t agree with you more. Living in Washington, DC, I feel the loudest voices are bike riders and anti-car transit advocates. The irony is that there is almost NEVER any discussion on how to improve the bus system, which the majority of low-income people rely on. They don’t understand that there not everyone has the same lifestyle. Rental/car sharing services are expensive if you are a frequent user because of family and other obligations. And there are cultural differences…I don’t know any low-income/poc who would rather have a bike over a car if they could afford one. This is the difference, you have the privilege of choosing to not own a car, though you could afford one, while others are forced to deal with public transportation out of necessity.

  13. Who are you referring to? Allen Shoup is considered “one of founding fathers of the Washington wine industry”. What’s your beef with his fans?

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