By Jonathan Krall
Alexandria is aging. By 2030, I am told, more than 30,000 residents will be older than 60.
Embracing the growing trend of aging in place rather than moving seniors to retirement communities, the Alexandria Commission on Aging developed a strategic plan and is preparing a first-year progress report. Its goals include: improved communication by city service providers, retaining affordable housing for seniors, encouraging entrepreneurship and providing better mobility options, such as a pedestrian network with fewer gaps. The plan envisions Alexandrians of all ages and abilities remaining engaged — mentally and physically.
Dr. Daniel Kulund, who is the group’s medical expert and an enthusiastic proponent of healthy exercise, embodies this ideal. The retired Air Force officer previously taught service members overseas to exercise in less than ideal circumstances.
Kulund leads workshops on robust walking, incorporating those same techniques. The practice encourages individuals to enjoy the scenery. Walking is supplemented with exercises and rest breaks. Exercises use ordinary objects, such as park benches or walls, as equipment. According to Kulund, “Robust walking is easy to learn. We teach only a few movements that you can do almost anywhere. I encourage everyone to fit exercise into their routine.”
Improving our pedestrian network also will benefit Alexandrians. In the North Ridge neighborhood, for example, Crestwood Drive has no sidewalks between Kenwood Avenue and Valley Drive. Speed tables have been installed, but these are hardly ideal for our youngest or oldest residents.
Other examples abound, such as Newton Street between Glendale Avenue and Braddock Road. And there are sections of busy Seminary Road where the sidewalk on one side of the street simply ends. In most cases, the city already owns the right-of-way so new sidewalks can be installed. If residents ask for them or City Hall asserts that they are needed, we will make progress.
A sparse network of signal-controlled crosswalks in the West End, and a generally slow response to the “beg button,” are more easily addressed. I have observed numerous cases of pedestrians ignoring the beg button in favor of running across the street when there is a gap in traffic.
Sometimes I join them and sometimes I wait, only to end up wishing I had run. Adjusting signal response is a small change, but doing so will benefit commuters and retirees. Says Kulund: “Many citizens would like to walk to our many city parks, but the walking environment is not always ideal.”
To our credit, part of the Alexandria complete streets program requires compiling resident requests, and officials are working to improve intersection safety with better crosswalks and other street improvements. At the same time, the ongoing redesign of our major parks includes new pedestrian connections between green spaces and neighborhoods. An update of our bicycle and pedestrian master plan, which will begin this fall, is another opportunity to speak up for sidewalks.
Success follows when barriers, however small, are removed. Like the gaps in our sidewalk network, our sparse bicycling network is a barrier to everyday, routine exercise.
Despite bicycling’s youthful image, many older Alexandrians are among the cycling population. Some are retired and simply riding to the nearest coffee shop. Others are former runners who find bicycling easier on their knees, and all appreciate that bicycling takes much less energy per mile than walking. For people who usually walk, bicycling seems to move the world closer.
Experts tell us that exercise is undervalued. In a popular video titled “23 and 1/2 Hours,” Dr. Mike Evans states that low fitness is the No. 1 indicator for ADHD, depression, heart disease and diabetes. Exercise — supported by robust sidewalk, bicycling and transit networks — can turn shut-ins into healthy, engaged residents and also improve the quality of life for us all.
The writer is a member of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.