An Introduction to Northeast Minnesota

Anchored by the City of Duluth in its southeast corner, Canada on its northern border, and Lake Superior on eastern border, the northeast region of Minnesota contains seven counties (Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake, and St. Louis), 69 cities, 181 townships, and four Tribal Nations within 22,143 square miles. Based on rural-urban commuting area codes (RUCA, a U.S. Census classification of land type), approximately 94 percent of lands in the region are classified as rural areas, where 74 percent of the region’s population resides. Responding to health inequities across Northeast Minnesota, public health educators are working to promote walking to tackle chronic disease prevention. These educators and their partners are the target audience of this tool kit.

Defining “Rural”

Areas are often classified as rural if they are not deemed urban. Two issues arise from this dichotomous framework:  urban areas are not identified consistently, and non-urban areas are complex and should not all be classified under the same land use model. Researchers commonly classify land use by using one of two measures:  Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) or commuter area codes. These measures differ greatly, leaving some areas classified as both urban and rural. On top of this, non-urban areas are complex and could further be classified as rural or suburban, leading to further difficulty. Using population densities of ZIP codes, the Department of Defense established this simplified framework:

  • Urban: More than 3,000 persons per square mile
  • Suburban: 1,000 ‐ 3,000 persons per square mile
  • Rural: Less than 1,000 persons per square mile1

Since cities are more complex than just local population densities (local development patterns, mindset of local populations, etc. should also be considered), this classification model can be inaccurate. Still, these numbers offer guidance in an effort to determine whether an area can and/or should be defined as rural.

The Rural Composition

With relatively low population and housing densities, a majority of areas in Northeast Minnesota maintain rural characteristics. Originally developed around centers of  primary economic activity such as mining, logging, and commercial fishing, many cities in the region typify the rural form, where a small town center with a main street acts as a centerpiece to mature residential neighborhoods that border less-developed lands.

Although town centers and their mature residential neighborhoods may include pedestrian infrastructure, areas outside the original town sites rarely include sidewalks, paths, or trails to accommodate foot travel, leaving high speed roadways as the only transportation infrastructure available in these areas. For pedestrians, the rural road environment holds inherent dangers, but due to the high cost of developing wide roadways in a topographically challenging region, pedestrians often cannot even find road shoulders suitable for walking. Barriers to walking only intensify with Northeast Minnesota’s harsh winters, which bring snow and ice as additional obstacles. These circumstances provide little incentive for people to walk, whether for pleasure or necessity.

The Rural Form:

A rural community in Northeast Minnesota often consists of an “old” town center surrounded by a mature residential area and swaths of undeveloped land with occasional residences. Local streets often connect the town center and residences, and a high volume roadway (usually a highway making connection to other cities) may run near or directly through the center of town.

More About Rural Health and Walking

Commonly cited as an important facet of a healthy lifestyle (contributing to lowered risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more)2, walking can serve as a necessary means of transportation in rural areas. In addition, walking is a low-risk exercise that boasts the lowest drop-out rate of any physical activity3. It can easily be incorporated into daily tasks and, therefore, is a convenient way for people to meet daily recommended physical activity levels.

Walking should receive special attention by public health practitioners who work in rural communities. Why? Rural children have nearly double the odds of obesity compared to urban children4, rural areas are generally poorer than urban areas and often include underserved populations5, and 1.6 million rural households nationwide do not have access to a car6.

1Great Data, Rural Urban Suburban Data
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Walking
3American Heart Association, Why Walking?
4Pediatrics, Obesity Disparities
5Population Reference Bureau, Poverty Persistent Reality
6USDA Economic Research Service, Rural Transportation
7Walk Boston, About Walking

One of the best ways to support walking in rural areas is to ensure that infrastructure is available to make connections and accommodate the safety and comfort of walkers. Responding to different circumstances, walking facilities come in multiple forms, including:

While walking facilities are recommended to be separated from roadways and highly identifiable by both pedestrians and motorists, each kind has unique features to accommodate pedestrian safety and comfort. Different types of walking facilities and some brief guidelines are outlined on the following pages. Discuss applying these options to your community’s walking network with the agencies managing public right of way, preferably during a planning process.



Street accommodating walking as one of multiple uses


Low volume, low speed road

  • A pedestrian warning sign with an “on roadway” placard should be used to clarify use of the street by pedestrians.
  • Tactile warning strips may be installed at the entrance of a shared space street to warn motorists they are entering shared space.
  • A “Share the Road” sign may be temporarily used to transition a primarily vehicular street to a shared space street.
  • Traffic calming plays a significant part in the success of shared space. Calming features may include street side landscaping, pavement designs with contrasting colors, or textured road surfaces.
  • A shared space street may also be referred to as a “yield roadway.”



Road shoulder used as a walkway


Low volume, moderate speed road

  • Shoulders used for walking should, at a minimum, use edge lines to delineate pedestrian space.
  • Pedestrians should walk on the far-left side of the road (facing oncoming traffic). Encouraged use of shoulders as walking facilities should always be paired with education programming.
  • All highways recommended for walking should have shoulders – either gravel or paved – on both sides of the roadway.
  • Additional delineation features, such as rumble strips, may enhance safety of pedestrians using road shoulders as walking facilities.
  • On roads where shoulders are frequently used as walkways, a sidewalk or trail should be added while keeping (not replacing) shoulders.



Road shoulder using markings, color, or materials in walk zone to designate space for non-motorized use


Moderate volume, low to moderate speed road

  • Enhanced shoulders should use markings to separate non-motorized and vehicular space. Other mediums and materials, such as color, rumble strips, or bollards, may be used to provide a more defined separation from vehicular traffic.
  • Enhanced shoulders should accommodate multiple non-motorized uses. Dimensions should mirror best practices for rural bike lanes.
  • With vertical separation, enhanced shoulders can accommodate two-way traffic.
  • Signage and pavement markings on the enhanced shoulder pavement can help motorists and non-motorized users easily identify the area’s intended use.



Raised pedestrian walkway adjacent to a road


Along roads adjacent to or connecting people to trip-generating facilities, such as town centers, employment centers, schools, parks, etc.

  • Sidewalks along a high speed road should include additional barriers (i.e. medians or planters) in addition to a curb.
  • Sidewalks are recommended on both sides of the street in commercial centers and along major residential roads, and on one side along local and low-density residential roads.
  • In downtown areas, a sidewalk includes four zones: curb (where vertical separation is made from the roadway), furniture (where street trees, benches, or garbage cans are placed), pedestrian (where things are left clear for foot traffic), and frontage (where a market or café may host outdoor stands or seating).



Off-road pedestrian walkway set at varying distances from the roadway


High volume, high speed road

  • Without a curb, a meandering path should maintain some separation from the roadway.
  • The path should allow pedestrian traffic only. Allowed use of the path, however, will be the ultimate decision of its owner and manager.
  • Although similar to sidewalks in dimensions and use, meandering roadside paths are usually constructed of asphalt, lack a curb, and respond to existing natural features, like trees. The path option is particularly adept to accommodating the rural aesthetic.
  • A roadside path should provide areas wide enough for passing at intervals to adhere to ADA standards.
  • Where a meandering path closely parallels a high speed roadway, more barriers may be needed to offer proper safety.



Off-road path designated for foot travel


High volume, high speed road corridor

  • A hiking trail includes a “tread” area to accommodate safe foot placement and a “clearing” area on either side of the tread to ensure a cleared corridor for use.
  • A 10 foot clearance height should be maintained along the entirety of the trail, with a minimum clearance height of 8 feet.
  • Areas for passing and slope should be considered to adhere to ADA standards.
  • Trail surface material may be native soil, wood chip (but not in wet-prone areas), stabilized aggregate, crushed limestone, or asphalt.
  • Stabilized aggregate, crushed limestone, asphalt, and concrete are options to consider to enhance accessibility, especially near town centers.



Off-road paved path designated for multiple uses


High volume, high speed road corridor

  • Mode use, direction of travel, and use volume should play into decisions regarding the width of the trail.
  • The presence of fixed objects (i.e. signs or railings) or features (i.e. ditch or swale) along a trail should play into decisions of separation width or inclusion of additional buffers, such as a railing or shrubbery.
  • A 10 foot clearance height should be maintained along the entirety of the trail, with a minimum clearance height of 8 feet.
  • An annual maintenance plan (i.e. clearing the corridor each spring, sweeping the trail throughout summer, and plowing in winter) should be implemented in order to maintain trail facilities and user experience.



A marked pathway on the road where pedestrians have right of way to cross.


A pedestrian-activated flashing roadside signage system utilized to bring attention to pedestrians, especially at uncontrolled intersections and mid-block crossings.


A pedestrian-activated “stoplight” system implemented specifically for mid-block crossings on busy roadways—also known as high-intensity activated crosswalks, or HAWKs.


A roadway median that gives pedestrians relief from continuous crossing of a wide roadway crossing.


An extension of the sidewalk, usually at a corner, to reduce crossing distance and enhance visibility of pedestrians—also known as bump-outs, bulb-outs, build-outs, neckdowns, elephant ears, nibs, and blisters.

  • Raised crosswalks/intersections can help increase pedestrian visibility and calm traffic.
  • Countdown pedestrian signals can help pedestrians time out safe crossing at a signalized intersection.
  • “Pedestrian head starts” at signalized intersections prioritize pedestrian safety and reduce conflict with cars turning right on red.
  • Curbed walking facilities should include curb ramps with tactile landing pads at crossings.
  • Protected left turns, stop bars, lighting, and general traffic calming measures also support pedestrian safety at road crossings.

Whether looking to inspire environmental change or engage populations through programming, working to advance rural walking in Northeast Minnesota can take many forms. This section offers the following ideas and tools to inform and support walking work in your community:

Be aware that these tools and ideas are provided for informational purposes only, and any guidance taken from them should be considered and applied with current conditions and systems of any given community in mind. The most important tool for advancing walking is building community support, which may take years of continued work to obtain.

Rural Walkability Checklist

Select an existing or potential walkway corridor in your rural community and use the checklist to the right to determine the elements that could be addressed to accommodate walkability along the segment.

Notes:  This checklist would especially be a helpful tool during walkability observations or walk audits with a small group. For best results, walkways to be analyzed should be broken down into segments that are consistent in form. If analyzing a system, copy this checklist and use it for each segment identified.

Programming and Partnerships

While the presence of pedestrian facilities encourages walking, programming that supports regular use of a walking system offers the greatest opportunity for reach and benefit in terms of community health and vitality. Within small rural communities, the most effective programming includes events and initiatives led by multiple organizations with common goals. In response to shortcomings identified during a walkability observation or walking audit, ideas for rural walking programs and cross-promotion are listed below.

Note:  Any ideas for enhancements to public rights-of-way should be discussed and coordinated with the agency that owns and manages the roadway (i.e. transportation, public works, or streets department).


Pedestrian wayfinding signage offers a directional guide for walkers and may include the time it takes to walk to a destination instead of noting the distance. This kind of signage is especially adaptable to rural town centers. Given the economic benefits of walking in communities, implementing such a project may be of interest to municipalities, business groups, and economic development authorities.


Walking routes offer an identified safe community walking course and could include additional considerations for snow and ice clearing during winter. Partnerships used to develop walking routes may vary, depending on local features and where the walking route would tentatively lead. A community rich in history could pair with a historical society to develop a walking tour. A walking route through a downtown area or by a school could partner with economic agencies or a school. For the colder months, consider indoor options and partnerships with malls, schools, or grocery stores.


Interpretive signage offers incentive for people to discover a city on foot, as long as the features being interpreted are connected via walking facilities. For this reason, interpretive signage pairs well with developing a walking route. Partnerships to produce interpretive signage can vary depending on the features being interpreted; a historical society, community club, school, or educational organization may be potential partners.


Small rest areas are an appreciated part of walking facilities, especially for beginner walkers or those with physical restrictions. These rest stops can include anything from a bench to restrooms and a kiosk with information about the site. Depending on the proposed scale of a wayside rest, a potential partner should be the owner/manager of the adjoining walking facility. A dual use wayside facility for pedestrians and motorists could be an opportunity to explore.


A walking club offers regular use of pedestrian facilities while providing additional social benefits for the community. Potential partnerships could include a seniors’ club or community education, which often already hosts exercise classes that could fold community walking into its program.


Especially in town centers, beautification efforts along sidewalks offer an opportunity to create a sense of “place” for pedestrians. In addition to a municipality, economic agencies within a municipality (economic development associations, chambers of commerce, etc.) may be interested in annual efforts to make particular districts in town attractive to everyone, including pedestrians.


In rural areas, education for safe walking practices is of utmost importance, especially when people are using on-road facilities. Strategies for outreach, including in-school education (i.e. Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Walk! Bike! Fun! curriculum) and community outreach efforts, could include partnerships with school districts, local police, and roadway owners/managers, including a state department of transportation and municipal public works offices.


Implementing Safe Routes to School in rural areas is often a challenge due to the distance between students’ homes and schools and a general lack of safe pedestrian facilities. However, certain strategies, like focusing on “Safe Routes to Bus Stops” or implementing “Walk On In” programs, can help parents and students choose active transportation for at least a portion of their trips. Municipalities and school districts are the primary movers in implementing these programming efforts.

Temporary Interpretive Signage in Proctor, Minnesota | Source: Proctor History Walk
Walking Group in Duluth, Minnesota | Source: ARDC
Downtown Beautification in Grand Marais, Minnesota | Source: ARDC

Experimentation Tools

The high cost of developing walking facilities causes particular concern for rural communities, which may not have extra funds to tackle projects that larger communities could easily implement. These communities should be careful in considering where separated pedestrian space is needed, and to prioritize recommended projects based on the needs of its population. In turn, rural areas can employ low-cost, temporary experimentation tactics (a.k.a. demonstration or pilot projects) to test and collect data on potential investments before spending large amounts of money on permanent infrastructure. Ideas for such projects to progress walking work are listed below.

Note:  These projects are not one-size-fits-all. Just because a project worked in one city or community does not mean its success will translate. Before starting on any project, research your community’s needs and desires, coordinate with the agency managing the impacted road right of way, and then build your project from your findings.


For pedestrians, signage can offer wayfinding services, additional safety, and even entertainment through programming. While permanent signage can be expensive, designing and posting temporary signs can help test and refine a project before it becomes permanent. Temporary signs are often made from corrugated plastic, which host an adhesive vinyl print as a sign face. They can be temporarily installed by looping cable ties through the signs and around existing poles.

  • Walk [Your City] was a tactical urbanism project that used temporary signage to famously introduce pedestrian wayfinding to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Intersections likely pose the most significant safety risk to pedestrians. However, temporary, low-cost solutions to identified intersection issues offer opportunities to test out how infrastructure changes could work.

  • Temporary neck-downs/bump-outs, created using objects like planters, railroad ties, or even traffic cones, can offer additional safety by reducing the crossing distance of a road, but also by working to calm traffic with re-engineered intersection corners.
  • Intersection repair is a Portland-based tactical urbanism project that encourages installation of booths or art at street corners and painted designs on intersection pavement, which act to calm traffic at the intersection and create a sense of place for pedestrians. For a more temporary version of intersection repair, try using sidewalk chalk.
  • Temporary crosswalks can help a community experiment with dimensions and even fun crosswalk designs to engage pedestrians. Paint is a popular medium to use for this project, but pavement marking tape offers an alternative that can be easily removed.

People want entertainment, so creating a sense of “place” is an important ingredient in building a successful community. In turn, tailoring a sense of “place” specifically to pedestrians along walking routes or in town centers not only can encourage walking, but also may entice motorists to park their cars and explore a community on foot.

  • In town centers, popular experimentation tools can include hanging flower baskets, small trees in planters, parklets, chairs, displays in vacant storefronts, art installations, and more.
  • Along trails and roadways, temporary, low-cost initiatives may come in the form of seating along the trail, portable toilets, or even Little Free Libraries. If the walking facility is on or along a roadway, people activating space at the end of their driveway also may offer entertainment for pedestrians at nearly no cost to a municipality.

Creating walking facilities is sometimes the only way to encourage walking in rural communities. This can be an expensive venture, but a low-cost, temporary solution can help demonstrate the need for such a facility and help a community experiment with different options

  • The installation of a new walking facility can be simulated on a paved area (like the edge of a parking lot) simply with paint and cones or on an undeveloped area by clearing and putting gravel on a corridor. On existing pavement, line markings and cones can offer creation of a pedestrian space. This will help give people the image of a future facility and potentially offer a temporary place to safely walk.
  • To test additional safety measures for sidewalks (or to aid in creating a temporary walking facility), a community can add extra separation to a pedestrian zone by installing planters or even traffic cone delineators between vehicular traffic and a pedestrian facility.

Note:  It is recommended that physical or programming changes made to the walking environment in any community are paired with routine manual pedestrian counts. Pedestrian counts do not only evaluate the effectiveness of a project but can also serve as an engagement strategy for members of the public interested in being a part of walking work.

To learn about best practices for pedestrian counts, research options presented by the Federal Highway Administration and the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies (CTS).

Temporary Pedestrian Wayfinding in Duluth, Minnesota | Source: Healthy Duluth Area Coalition
Temporary bump-outs in downtown Cloquet, Minnesota | Source: Carlton County Public Health and Human Services
Parklet in downtown Duluth, Minnesota | Source: ARDC
Safe Routes to School planning inspired an experimentation project to test a space for non-motorized use at a school in Carlton, Minnesota. | Source: ARDC

Sample Plan Language

Planning plays an important part in introducing walking initiatives to any community. Below, find sample plan language that can help you with bringing walking to the table in a variety of topics.


[Local government] will support development patterns (i.e. multi-use) that incorporate walking infrastructure and limit the distance between residential areas and pedestrian-generating facilities, such as places of employment, schools, businesses, and parks.

  • Analyze existing land use to determine the best places to site new development and/or prioritize maintenance and construction of walking facilities.

[Local government] will work to create a transportation system that safely and comfortably connects people using non-motorized means of travel to services and businesses within [Municipality].

  • Examine all transportation options and brainstorm how walking could complement existing travel behaviors.

[Local government] will pursue enhancement and prioritize maintenance of walking facilities in economic centers, and between residential areas and economic centers.

  • Partner with economic development stakeholders (i.e. business groups) to build a street vibrancy that supports walking.

[Local government] will promote walking as an important part of supporting the well-being of its citizens.

  • Ensure that quality walking infrastructure supports both the safety and comfort of pedestrians, connecting residential areas to green spaces and healthy food vendors.

[Local government] will provide walking infrastructure within, and connecting, centers of recreation (i.e. parks) in [Municipality].

  • Partner with other organizations to enhance walking facilities and cross-promote and program recreation areas.

[Local government] will support practices that integrate walking infrastructure into residential settings and offer safe, non-motorized means of connecting residential areas to municipal services.

  • Adopt an ordinance that requires developers to include sidewalks in any new developments added to the municipality.

[Local government] will acknowledge walking as a sustainable form of transportation and support the creation and maintenance of public infrastructure to support this mode.

  • Explore the ownership and management structures of walking facilities (i.e. sidewalks) in the municipality and ensure the system promotes proper maintenance of public infrastructure that supports sustainable practices.

Made possible by the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.