We Walk PHL “is more than just a walk in a park,” although that’s definitely part of the program, says Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Community Program Coordinator, Nicole Seahorne Hameen, who manages the twice-yearly initiative.
“We’re breaking up isolation. We’re rebuilding communities and co-creating new communities,” Nicole says. “We’re walking in tandem with people we normally would have never met because of the common goals of health and wellness, taking in the beautiful scenery and taking up space in a positive way.”
Created by Fairmount Park Conservancy in partnership with the Departments of Public Health and Parks & Recreation, We Walk PHL began as a small pilot project in 2017 in three city parks. The goal: To promote the healthy benefits of walking and being exposed to nature while also building stronger relationships among neighbors.
Since 2017, the program has significantly expanded the number of participating parks, and this year has already been eventful for We Walk PHL. The Spring 2022 season, which ran from 5/1 to 6/30, saw more than 2,600 participants on 31 weekly walks in 17 city parks and the program was highlighted by Next City, WHYY, and 6ABC. The current Fall 2022 season, which runs until 10/31, features 18 different park locations.
Nicole, who first connected with the program as a walker, said she’s seen participants benefit physically and mentally. A Vernon Park woman in her 60s has lost 100 pounds since taking up walking, improving her asthma, her hypertension and her confidence. “She’s regaining herself,” Nicole says. “Her doctor reached out and said, ‘We need this program. How do we get people connected?’ …. Now multiple doctors are prescribing the program for their patients.”
Many of the parks participating in the program – including Malcom X Park, Rose Playground and Hunting Park – are in communities that have historically struggled because of disinvestment, environmental racism and trauma caused by violence and economic struggles.
A look at the photos shared on the We Walk PHL’s Facebook group page tells the story of a program well-loved: Clark Park trekkers posing by the Charles Dickens statue; dedicated Awbury Arboretum walkers in ponchos and umbrellas, undeterred by rain; FDR Park steppers doing their pre-walk warm-ups.
Also common in the Facebook group are “sneaker selfies” showing one leg and foot of each walker. “Some people don’t like to take face selfies. They’re coming to the park to bust it out, no make-up, no lashes. The shoes are all that matters, not what we look like, not where we work, not our activity level. It shows commonality,” she says.
Each 45 to 50 minute weekly walk has two leaders, so walkers of all speeds and needs feel included. Most walkers are 50 years of age or older. (Nicole knows one participant in her late 70s.) If the group gets splintered, a leader will call for a “loop and scoop,” which asks the faster walkers to double back to rejoin the group. “It’s showing a little love. ‘We sped up, but we’re coming back.’ They come back and encourage everyone and then they begin their own pace again,” Nicole says.
The program’s 50 volunteer walk leaders receive a $100 stipend at the end of the walking season. They were also invited to “Adventure Day,” an event this past June that featured music and massage therapists.
Nicole says the program introduced her to parts of the city she’d known nothing about. “It has emboldened me to traverse the city and the green spaces I’d driven past or walked past or excluded myself from for various reasons,” she says. “We have people who have lived in Philadelphia all of their lives and they’ve never been to the park down the street or across town and now they’re in love with it. I love that.”
To further encourage exploration, We Walk PHL offers a “Park Hopper Challenge” each walking season. Those who volunteer at or visit at least four other parks are entered into a raffle and have a chance to win gift cards and We Walk PHL swag. “This breeds stewardship,” Nicole says.
It also builds communities. Examples on the program’s Facebook page include a July birthday celebration for a member of the Hunting Park walking group and an August gathering at Awbury Arboretum.
“Each walk, every step is a commitment,” Nicole says, “a magical essence of just changing the paradigm of what’s happening in Philadelphia at that moment.”
Want to walk with us this Fall? The Fall 2022 walking season is free to participate and runs until Oct. 31. Check out the map & schedule here!
Photos courtesy of We Walk PHL.
Walk PHL is funded in part by the Pa. Department of Health’s Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant.