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Walkability Summit aims to boost well-being across region

Here are three important reasons why public health leaders in the region decided to launch a new regional walking effort, starting with a first annual Walkability Summit next week:

• The annual cost of health care runs about $2,500 less for someone who is physically active compared to someone insufficiently active.

• The Buffalo Niagara metro area ranked 151 out of 186 metro regions last year in terms of health and well-being, according to a Gallup-Sharecare survey.

• Five of eight counties in the region – including Erie and Niagara – landed in the bottom 10 of New York State’s 62 counties during in a national health rankings survey released in March.

The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and its executive director, Phil Haberstro, believe more walking holds the key to improving those numbers.

“From a physical activity standpoint, it's the broadest activity to reach the most people,” Haberstro said Thursday. “It is so intergenerational. It’s inclusive and it works for older adults, including those who ‘roll’ in walkers or wheelchairs. It has a very low cost. It’s such a plus for any neighborhood, any community.”

He encouraged developers, municipal planners, elected officials and those interested in improving health and wellness in their workplaces and communities to attend the Walkability Summit, which runs during the day on Thursday and Friday in the Buffalo Grand Hotel (the former Adam's Mark).

[Related: Officials see hopeful trends, no instant fixes to WNY's low health rankings]

Haberstro and the Wellness Institute first chased a national America Walks summit for Buffalo but received feedback from public health leaders that it was first more important for localities to get a better sense of how to create more walkable communities.

“This is not going to be one of those sit and listen events,” Haberstro said. “This is a working summit.”

Thursday will focus on where communities find themselves in terms of pedestrian safety and access. Those who attend will get the first look at walk scores for eight regional counties. They then will break into groups split between those from rural, suburban and urban areas.

They also will hear more about a partnership forged this week between the Niagara River Greenway Commission, the Wellness Institute and nine Rotary clubs to further improve pedestrian and biking access along the waterfront from Buffalo to Youngstown.

Dr. Ian Thomas, state and local program director from the nonprofit advocacy group America Walks, will give a national perspective at 1 p.m. on what has worked elsewhere. Thomas developed one of the first “Walking School Bus” programs in the country, in which parents walk their kids to school. He also advocated for the adoption of the first “complete streets” policy in Missouri.

Friday will focus on where communities would like to be – and how they might get there.

Keynote speaker Amanda O'Rourke, CEO of Toronto-based 8-80 Cities, will talk at 1 p.m. about ways to make cities more livable and walkable across the lifespan. The organization in February announced that Buffalo was one of three communities awarded a two-year grant to design programs and events to lessen social isolation and boost activity during the winter.

“One very strong thing is that we’ll get out of the summit is a draft strategic plan for improving walking in walkability in Erie County and the Western New York region,” Haberstro said. “Secondly, we will be holding the first meeting of the of the advocacy group WNY Walks!”

Both days will end with a free 5 p.m. walk, open to the public, through parts of the Hooks Neighborhood, a stretch of land between Canalside, LaSalle Park and Sahlen Field. A University at Buffalo-led presentation about redevelopment prospects for the neighborhood kicks off the summit at 10:45 a.m. Thursday and is open free to the public.

The entire summit costs $35 per day or $49 for both days. Register at healthycommunitynetwork.com, or on-site at a slightly higher cost.

Can Buffalo Niagara boost its walkability?

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