Walk to School: Jennifer Keesmaat at TEDxRegina

Translator: Mirjana Čutura
Reviewer: Ivana Korom What happens on a walk to school? Do you remember your walks to school? Do you remember the long road
stretching out in front of you? Do you remember the friends
that you shared the journey with? Do you remember bags
that were simply way too heavy you never thought
you were going to make it — you just weren’t simply going to get home? Do you remember the adventures
that sometimes ended wrong? Well, I’d like to propose
that this journey, this walk to school, in fact, mattered. Remember that it took you
15 minutes to get to school, but an hour and a half to get home? Well, that hour and a half mattered. That hour and a half mattered
to your sense of self, it mattered to your health, it mattered to your
understanding of the world, and it probably even
shaped your worldview. And here is why. Walking is, in fact,
an indicator of us as a species. It tells us something about who we are,
and what it is that we, in fact, value. Now, you’ll see here,
on this next slide — this is a picture of me walking to school. You can tell it’s a classic ’70s shot. This is the late ’70s. And I always thought that some kind of adventure
was going to take place while I was walking to school. I was out in the world. I was making choices. Today we have to ask, “What has happened to this free,
simple adventure that we offer children? Are children out in the world today taking chances, seeking simple pleasures as they walk home from school?” Well, let’s see what’s happened. If you look at this graph here – and I’m an urban planner, we like graphing things
and mapping thing out. And I work in communities across Canada. And one of the things
that you see on this graph is really reflective of what’s happening on a national and, quite frankly,
a continental scale in this country, and it’s an inversion. In 1969, the odds
are you walked to school. Twelve percent of the population
in 1969 was driven to school. In 2009, the odds are that your child
is driven to school. Twelve percent of the population
in 2009 walks to school. In one generation, we have completely
inverted the way we move about. What does this mean
and, really, does this even matter? Well, I would like to propose
that it matters for three not so frivolous reasons. And the first reason is that walking to school
is, in fact, a rite of passage. And this is about childhood autonomy. There’s some wonderful literature
that talks about autonomy and the role that autonomy
plays for children in creating autonomous adults. And we have to ask ourselves, “Has the wholesale abandonment
of the walk to school – is it, in fact,
a risk to us as a society?” Now, you saw the picture of me
walking to school as a child. I was very exuberant, obviously. And I can easily be nostalgic
about walking to school, but I also remember the rain, I remember coats that we too thin,
I remember shoes that got soggy, I remember carrying a brown paper bag with my lunckh in it. No one carries those any more,
but I remember carrying that in the rain, the bag getting wet, the bag breaking, and the apples tumbling
down onto the street, out of my arms, and having to somehow figure out how to carry my sandwich,
my drink, and my apples to school without any kind of bag. But these were trials to be overcome. The interesting thing
about a rite of passage is that a rite of passage assumes that there’s some kind
of a significant change taking place in an individual’s life: you’re moving from one place to the next. That rite of passage
is about beginning to understand who you are in your neighborhood, who you are in your community,
who you are in the world. And I want to suggest here
that walking to school is an important part of children learning to, in fact,
become autonomous adults. So that’s reason number one. Reason number two is a bit of a zinger, so I just want to warn you
before it goes up on the screen, because it’s not so pleasant,
and we don’t like to talk about it. But the reality is that childhood
obesity isn’t fair. And as walking has decreased, obesity has significantly increased. Children who are obese are four times
more likely to be obese as adults. Think about that for a minute. Obesity is linked
to significant health issues, to shorter life spans. These are important reasons
for us to take obesity seriously. But think about it
from the child’s perspective. What’s the biggest impact
to a child of being obese? Well, it’s going to be
more difficult to participate in day-to-day activities
taking place at school. But the biggest impact
is really psychological. Do you remember being teased as a child? And we don’t like to talk
about childhood obesity. It sounds like a judgment. It sounds a bit too personal. We shouldn’t really go there. But what if it’s a national health issue? What if childhood obesity is fundamentally affecting
the quality of life of our children and their future quality of life? There’s good data on this stuff. Children who walk to school
are more likely to be active throughout the day at school. Children who walk to school
have lower BMI, body mass index, scores, the amount of fat
that’s measured on their bodies. It’s significantly lower
if children, in fact, walk to school. In Canada, only 12 percent of children are getting the daily dosage
of 90 minutes a day of physical activity. Only 12 percent. If walking to school
could have an impact on that number, could even make a bit of a dent in it
and push it a little bit upwards, why wouldn’t that be something
that we would, in fact, want to embrace? So that’s reason number two. Reason number three is really
about the way that we live in the world. It’s about shrinking our footprint. And this is really
about our environmental imperative, and it may sound
a little bit self-evident. But I want to talk about active
modes of transportation. This is throwing some
planning lingo in there. As planners, when we talk
about active transportation, we’re talking about ways of moving
from one place to another, using our bodies as our primary
means of movement. So walking, running,
cycling, rollerblading, anything that doesn’t involve
a fossil fuel. Now in the early ’80s, there was a planner
based in Vancouver, BC named Dr. Will Rees, who came up with a tool
to assess the impact that each one of us has on the earth. This was called
Ecological Footprint Analysis. And what Dr. Rees realized is that most of us
are consuming significantly more than the earth can bear, and we’re producing much more waste
than the earth can assimilate. And what was so interesting
about the work that he did was he looked at each individual
and figured out a way that, on individual basis,
you could go home, and you could look at the things you do, the things you eat,
the food you eat, what you consume, and you could calculate
what your footprint is, how much earth is required
to support your lifestyle. So for example, one of the things we know
as a result of this analysis is that, in a developing country, it takes approximately a third
of a hectare to support one individual. In North America – you can imagine the number
is obviously much higher – it takes between eight and ten hectares to support each individual, and it varies depending on
how consumptive each one of us is. So Dr. Rees having done
this analysis, realizing that, “Yes, we’re heading
for a global catastrophe, we’re taking more than we should, and we’re putting much more junk
back into the earth than the earth could possible assimilate,” came up with one solution. And his solution was – we need to live more simply
at a very basic level. What could be more simple than strapping on your shoes
and walking to school? Walking to school
is not the entire solution to our environmental crisis, but it can serve to shrink our footprint
on an individual basis. And this, in fact, really matters. This is an important reason why we should, in fact,
be walking to school. So I’ve talked a little bit about some of the reasons
why walking to school matters. And at the end of the day,
it’s pretty straightforward. You don’t need to go buy
something to walk to school. Cities don’t need to be completely rebuilt although, as planners,
we can plan for walking, and we can plan
higher-density neighborhoods that encourage walking
in a more substantive way. And lastly, you don’t need
permission to walk to school; you don’t need to get a license. You can just walk out of the door
and do it tomorrow, right? It’s pretty straightforward. Well, this is where I came to a problem
in my planning practice, because, you see, I have children. And I have a 12-year-old daughter and, a couple of years ago, I decided that it was pretty important
to tackle this issue of walking to school, with my daughter. And just to set the stage for you, there she is. Her name’s Alexandra. She’s right in the center there. I thought she was waving at everybody, but she told me when I showed her
this presentation, she said, “No, no, Mom. I’m high fiving.” Alexandra and I sat down
to have a talk about walking to school, and this is the very first thing that Alexandra had to say
about walking to school, “Like, forget it, Mom.
It’s way, way too far. There’s just absolutely no way.” I scratched my head and thought,
“Well, it’s sort of far.” And then I thought, “Hold on a minute. I walked to school.
How far was my walk to school?” Being an inherently competitive person, I dragged Alexandra over to the computer, and I said, “Kid, let’s map
our walks to school. I actually think my walk to school
was significantly longer than your walk to school, and if I did it, heaven knows you can do it too. Not that much has changed, in fact.” So that’s what Alexandra and I did. And you see there — the “H” is for my house,
and the “S” is where my school was. And lo and behold, my walk to school
was 2.7 kilometers. Now, this is just on the threshold
of being a bit too far. Over three kilometers, typically,
the numbers take a deep dive in terms of how many kids
will, in fact, walk to school. But I can tell you
I did that walk to school, and you heard the story
about the apples rolling on the sidewalk. I did it there, and I did it back,
and I didn’t actually ask questions. I didn’t really think
that I had an option. And maybe that’s why I’m such
an autonomous adult, who knows? So, let’s look
at Alexandra’s walk to school. There’s our house,
and some things have changed. You can see here we’re in a much denser urban neighborhood, which is good for walking to school. And here’s Alexandra’s walk —
1.9 kilometers to school. So you know what this meant. This was like good news, bad news. This was great news for me
and really bad news for Alexandra because I said, “Kid, it’s not too far. I know. I’m living proof.
I’m a relic of the past. It’s not too far. I did it.
You can do it too.” Well, immediately what happened when we determined
that distance wasn’t a problem, two other issues came up. A whole series of — kind of
lumped in as fact-based reasons why she couldn’t walk to school and then a bunch of what I call
fear-based reasons. And really what we did
was we sat down at the table, we both agreed, Alexandra agreed that those three reasons
were really important reasons for her to be walking to school, so we began to identify
what some of the other reasons might be. We’d already decided it wasn’t too far. There were some fear-based reasons, and quite frankly, we did not know
what to do with those, so we just left those on the table. The fact that she was tired. “At the end of the day,
I’m too tired to walk home, Mom.” “Okay, so you’re going to have
to get to bed earlier, and we’re going to make sure
you’ve got good, nutritious snacks in your backpack,
that you can eat on the way home.” “What about getting
to after-school programs?” Well, we made a strategic
decision as a family: no more after-school programs that are not within walking
distance of the school. More fear-based reasons came up. “What about the fact
that no one else walks?” Now, I have to admit
that this was the biggest reason for me, because having a child on the sidewalk,
children walking down the street – it humanizes an environment. We all watch what’s going on;
we drive a little bit more slowly when we see children on the sidewalk. So my problem was, “Well, she’s going to be the only kid
in this neighborhood, where everyone else is driving to school.” We really didn’t know
how to solve that one other than beginning
to look for other kids who might be willing to walk
to school as well. And it’s difficult
to do things differently than the culture that you’re in. But we also decided to get her
a cell phone as a safety precaution because she was going to be walking
that 1.9 kilometers alone. Her bag is too heavy. Every morning we prune her bag,
and every evening we prune her bag. No extra junk. If you notice the huge packs
kids carry today, it’s because they’re not
walking to school. If they were walking to school,
they would have smaller bags. What became very clear in going through
these fact-based reasons and the fear-based ones is that the fact-based ones,
we could be creative and solve. And the fear-based ones —
well, you know what? There really wasn’t anything
we could do about those. We just had to decide as a family that we were not too prepared
to enter the world based on fear. So we said, “You know what? Screw all those fear-based reasons. We’re going to address
the things that we can address, and we are going to go out boldly
walking to school.” What became clear to us is that it’s a choice,
actually, to walk to school. And there’s a whole series of strategies. I told you a few of the ones
that we used at our house, but also just walking
some of the time, not all the time; walking maybe only home
from school, not to school; the walking school bus, where parents
in the neighborhood come together, and they walk each others kids to school; maybe dropping kids off near the school,
not necessarily right at the school — there’s still that opportunity
for autonomy, there’s still that opportunity
for getting some exercise before school — just dropping children off
part of the way. What became very clear in going through
this exercise with Alexandra is that very, very evidently,
in one generation, we’ve completely shifted from being a society
where children walk to school to being a society
where children are driven to school. We shifted it in one generation. And guess what? We can, in fact, shift it back. I want to suggest that walking to school is, in fact, a simple,
hopeful, powerful act. It is an indicator of what we believe
and what it is that we value. It’s also an indicator
of where we choose to live or sometimes where we can afford to live. It’s an indicator
of the health of our children, the health of our environment,
the health of our communities. I would like to suggest that we need to re-embrace
walking to school because there are some
not so frivolous reasons that demand it of us. Can we take steps to walk to school? And I have a bonus slide
for you here, and it’s this. That’s Alex, walking to school yesterday. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. This is the same Jen Keesmaat who helped Royal St. George's College in Toronto push through an application to the OMB to let a private school put a 40-space underground garage in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.

    Local neighbourhood kids walking to school have to dodge the traffic created by the private school.

    She's going to make a great Chief Planner in Toronto under Rob Ford. If Ford doesn't like her views, Keesmaat is more than willing to change them.

  2. Congratulations to Jennifer Kessmaat – a champion of sustainable transportation, especially active school travel, which is critical to the health and mobility of children everywhere.

  3. Excellent talk. I've noticed how reduced the peak hour traffic is during the school holidays. The environment benefits would be huge if we could return to those 1969 figures!
    I wish there was some way to download the captioning so I could edit them (loads of errors in the automated transcription) and use this talk with my adult English language students.

  4. @West Annex News: What bullcrap. The underground parking garage replaced a bunch of on-grade parking lot space.  So they didn't suddenly add demand for car traffic, they added more space for humans.

  5. This is awesome Jennifer, I was there in person when you gave this talk, perhaps even more relevant today! Walking to school I learned so many things – racing sticks in streams after it rained, playground fights, 'sportsing', walking on snow banks along the street, and then later chasing girls… so many important life adventures and learnings as a young human…

  6. There is a lot of skewed salesmanship. Only the seasoned folks will know how this special art has been perfected to cut across most of the left oriented cess pool.

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