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Walking College fellow looks to give Buffalo a leg up on community walkability

Sarah Martin looks to help WNY communities create walkability plans.

Sarah Martin looks to help WNY communities create walkability plans.

Sarah Martin moved to New Jersey after she graduated five years ago from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, and worked as a door-to-door canvasser for Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based public advocacy group that promotes access to clean and healthy food and water.

“ESF got me very interested in advocacy and the relationship between public health and environmental issues,” said Martin, 28, an Allegany native who lives in Allentown.

That led her to last year to SUNY Buffalo State, to pursue a degree as a registered dietitian.

Meanwhile, she’s also set her sights on walking. Earlier this year, she landed a part-time job as walkability specialist with the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo. She then landed a summer fellowship for Walkability College, an initiative of America Walks, a nonprofit group that spurs walking and more walkable communities.

Q. What do you do at the Wellness Institute?

My work centers around the Walking to Wellness 40 Million Steps campaign. We set a high goal this year after blowing the two previous years’ goals out of the water. We are very proud to have been recognized as a Best Practice by the New York State Department of Health.

Read a related story about community walkability here; read about WNY walking and biking fitness options here.

From left, Richard Schraven (dark cap) Janet and David Kowalski are among the hikers with the Adirondack Mountain Club. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

From left, Richard Schraven (dark cap) Janet and David Kowalski are among the hikers with the Adirondack Mountain Club. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Q. What will job look as it continues?

It’s part of a long-term effort to improve walkability in Western New York. The Walking College is going to occupy a lot of my time during the summer. I’m also looking to do a training video on how to do a walkability assessment. We’re hoping to get citizens interested in measuring the walkability in their communities and hopefully improving it, if need be.

Q. What do you already know about America Walks and its Walking College? What will the Walking College experience be like?

It’s an interactive program, about 12 weeks long with different online modules, different topics. It’s reading case studies and written works from urban planners or advocates. There are webinars. You also take part in a mentoring group. I’ll be matched to other students who are roughly in a similar area geographically or culturally speaking. It’s a great opportunity to network. Their goal for us is not just to influence change, but measurable change, to come up with specific plans.

Q. Why did you apply for the fellowship and how did that process work?

Because I’m still new and trying to figure out how I can best help. I know about the Complete Streets policy and can read articles about what’s going on in other cities but I haven’t been at it long enough where I can feel I can really grasp the tools available. The Walking College is an opportunity for me to figure out what’s going on in other cities, what are the concepts we can apply here in Buffalo, ways to help with our education initiatives, ways to help with fundraising and policy decisions, broadening my impact. It was a little bit of the challenge, too. They accept 25 people. Going through the application process and getting accepted really makes me feel good. They estimated about 100 people would apply this year.

Q. How is Western New York doing right now in terms of walkability? Are there areas you already sense can be improved upon?

There’s only a couple of areas I can speak to right now. Buffalo is doing a lot. There’s a lot of programs going on to increase Complete Streets: bike lanes, pedestrian access, narrowing lanes or narrowing roads so the traffic moves a little safer. There’s been a lot of work just updating the sidewalks. A lot of sidewalks which were very unsafe – a huge obstacle to safe walking – are repaved now. There’s a lot of activity at the construction level. I want to praise Buffalo for that. Back home, Allegany sits next to the City of Olean. It’s very, very small and they’re undergoing a Union Street transformation in Olean. It’s the first time I’ve seen any Complete Streets or walkability concept applied to my hometown. They’re narrowing lanes, building roundabouts, increasing crosswalks and bike lanes. It’s a wonderful thing.

Q. Do you have any sense about suburban Buffalo?

Not so much. I know that Complete Streets and walkability are becoming buzzwords in a lot of villages and towns in the suburbs but I’m not sure specifically what’s going on. It’s easy to focus on downtown within the city itself because the city is making a big effort to bring people back. There also are areas that are more poverty stricken. There are areas like the East Side, where I don’t want to say walkability is more important but it has a very strong physical impact. We tend to neglect the suburbs and they tend to have a different set of problems. They might be very safe areas but if you go into the more residential zones, especially newer developments, they tend to lack sidewalks entirely, or streetlights. They’re very car-centric. Even if you build sidewalks in a neighborhood, where do you go? There’s a lot of cul-de-sacs. It can be very isolated, very broken apart.

Q. Do you have a sense yet about what cities are national models when it comes to walkability?

There’s a few. One that comes to mind is Vancouver. As part of the Walking College, I will be going to Vancouver in September for a Pro Walk, Pro Bike, Pro Place Conference. They located it there because it’s supposed to be the most sustainable city in North America. Then there’s areas that probably won’t surprise people, like Portland, Ore. or Seattle, that tend to be known for being a bit more green. There’s a lot of up and coming cities as well, like Missoula, Miss., and older cities, many of which are founded on the principles of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Parkway System, that are known for being more livable, more walkable. They have more green space. It’s neat seeing cities that were founded on those principles and newer cities founded on smart growth tackling the same issue with a more technology-based approach.

Q. What comes after Walking College?

School. I also will have drafted some sort of walkability plan for a community here. Whether that be Buffalo or Erie County, we’re not sure yet. It will be something measurable. It will be a six-month, one-year or two-year plan.

Q. Where do you like to walk?

I’m not too far from Delaware Park. I can walk there or shoot up by bike through Forest Lawn cemetery.

Q. How do you stay in shape?

Walking is definitely part of it. I ride my bike a lot. I take an anatomy and physiology course at ECC City and ride to that. I ride to and from work. My life is pretty busy and can get stressful, so I also do yoga at home. That helps to keep me in shape, too.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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