Summer has finally arrived, and people from coast to coast are eager to get outside for some fresh air and exercise. Many will join their friends, family members or favourite four-legged companion on a stroll about their neighbourhood – but how many would consider doing the same with a member of their local government?
Earlier this year, the mayor of Ashland, Ky. launched “Walk with the Mayor.” Concerned with the obesity rate in his hometown, and a lack of civic engagement, the newly-elected Chuck Charles decided he would take to the street. Along with his dog, his worship has scheduled nine walks throughout the summer to promote healthy lifestyles, bring the government to the people, and foster a sense of community among neighbours. The routes are available online, and anyone can join Mayor Charles on his constitutionals, to get to know him better, discuss local priorities, and just enjoy the community on foot.
It is a simple initiative but encouraging people to get outside for a walk is an effective way of furthering a number of important goals, from promoting healthy lifestyles to encouraging healthier communities.
Besides ensuring everyone involved gets some exercise, citizens have responded positively to the opportunity to speak with their mayor in a meaningful way. While many would be uncomfortable having to schedule a meeting down at city hall, or feel harried with only a few seconds to shake his hand at a community event or during an election campaign, residents are able to spend an hour or more discussing local issues in a friendly and familiar setting – while leisurely touring the community they share.
Given the benefits — and the ease with which it could be implemented — why don’t other municipalities attempt a similar initiative? Canadian cities are facing serious challenges and promising opportunities, and citizens might appreciate their elected leaders making themselves available to discuss these issues outside of their office. What if mayors and councillors in communities big and small across Canada committed to walking to and from work, say, 10 times between July and September, and invited their constituents to join them?
Obviously, it would be impractical for suburban councillors to walk all the way to city hall but they could begin with a healthy walk in their community, and then jump on public transit the rest of the way. This would provide the additional benefit of allowing them to experience a commute to work from outside their cars. Moving about the city on foot or by bus is very different than getting around behind the wheel. Elected officials in many urban centres are grappling with major spending decisions regarding transit investment, so having a first-hand appreciation for the needs and challenges of navigating without a car could be useful when it comes time to ensure these funds are spent in a manner that actually benefits those who rely on public transportation infrastructure.
Moreover, it would give councillors, and anyone who joined them on their stroll, a new perspective on the community. Focusing on getting to your destination behind the wheel does not provide the same opportunity to really see your hometown as walking does. The face of Canada’s urban communities is changing. It is important to give attention to mega projects like skyscrapers and other large developments — as politicians often do — but it is also worthwhile to see our neighbourhoods as cohesive wholes, something that is far easier done on foot than zipping through with your eyes and attention on the road.
Clearly, the goals of a “walk with your councillor to work” program would be more qualitative than quantitative but that is definitely not a strike against the idea — especially considering the whole initiative would be free.
In fact, the municipal level of government has the most direct impact on Canadians’ lives but many citizens do not realize just how many services fall under their jurisdiction; having the opportunity to speak with their mayor or councillor could help residents understand the myriad roles city governments play. Participants would be able to put a face to the name of their representative, and enable them get to know each other on a more personal level.
It would be a small initiative, but could be a meaningful step in fostering civic engagement and understanding, promoting healthy lifestyles, and getting people out to enjoy what will hopefully be a beautiful Canadian summer.
Troy Media municipal affairs columnist Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.