June 04, 2007

The Walkable Neighborhood: An Interview with Eric Fredericks

There is a book written by Italo Calvino about a poor man named Marcovaldo, who spends his days clinging to the slivers of nature that are so hard to find in his large and overwhelming city. On his way to and from work, he inhales the slices of sky that slide between the building skylines, fearing they’ll disappear as quickly as the diminishing pop of a flashbulb. Marcovaldo felt like many of us do these days: trapped and bumbling through an unfriendly, inhuman environment of concrete and glass built to an inhuman scale for as far as the eye can carry.

Cities need not be so cold and uninviting, though. The walkable city—and its general counterpart, the walkable neighborhood— offers its residents an open invitation to explore, to connect, to experience the sights and sounds and smells and people that make such dense living truly worthwhile. Better still, it's possible to make a seemingly unfriendly neighborhood a walkable one. Eric Fredericks, urban planner and author of the Walkable Neighborhoods blog, recently offered Small Failures (and our esteemed readers) a few insights into the benefits of a walkable neighborhood:

How does a walkable neighborhood impact the daily lives of its residents?
A walkable neighborhood completely impacts the daily lives of most of its residents—but the same can be said for just about any neighborhood. A walkable neighborhood just makes you appreciate the impacts more. For instance, typically walkable neighborhoods have multiple destinations that are within a safe and comfortable walking distance of your residence. You wouldn't even consider driving to these places because it just seems silly to drive such a short distance. So, you end up walking to places like the grocery store, the park, the barber, local restaurants, and so on. Then, you realize that in a suburban setting things are so spread out or hostile to walking that sometimes it's difficult to go to these places on foot - and maybe even frustrating to drive to them as well.

This has an effect on people in a couple of ways :
  1. People don't interact with each other as much because there is a general lack of close places to interact.

  2. You end up spending either an inordinate amount of time in your home or in your car.
Walkable neighborhoods really coax people into walking and interacting more with their neighborhood because so many activities are close by. That has an enormous effect on physical and mental health. You don't even need to read publications to realize this - you can just go to any walkable place (non-touristy, mind you) and see that its residents are generally thinner than other types of neighborhoods. In addition, walking in these types of neighborhoods is often pleasant, and that can help lower stress levels immensely.

What should we be aware of when interacting with our neighborhood throughout the day?

Focus on the things in your neighborhood that you really enjoy. Make mental notes about all of the things you appreciate about your neighborhood. If you happen to live in or get to spend time in walkable neighborhoods, my guess is that your positives will far exceed the negatives.

I try and notice all of the little details: the squirrels climbing around on the trees, the architectural differences between homes, the canopy of trees over the street, the diversity of people walking around the neighborhood. My personal stress level is much lower when I'm thinking about the things going on around me in my neighborhood then when my mind is focused on other things.

How can we each help make our neighborhoods more walkable?

This is a tough question because it really varies from place to place and what the local preferences are. If you're having a problem with aspects of your neighborhood, the first thing is to bring the neighbors together and talk about the issues. You might find that an easy solution can come from this. If a solution can't be derived from this one-on-one approach, it's important to form a neighborhood organization to discuss problems.

I would be very wary of [easy] solutions—many times the best solutions for improving walkability in a neighborhood are counter-intuitive. I would highly recommend talking to a walkability expert first; your local traffic engineer may not be aware of the best solutions either. And no, speed bumps are not going to solve your problems.

Getting the help of a livability professional may also help ease neighborhood apprehension to ideas that you might not have dreamed of considering. For instance, most people seem to be scared of higher density or taller buildings in their neighborhood. However, if the design is done correctly, even though the buildings may be taller or close together they can have a low-density feel about them. The key is all in the design. For any neighborhood to be walkable, in reality, you need a mix of land uses, higher density of residents, and small block sizes with connected streets (usually not cul de sacs or sound walls, and never gated communities).

Eric's comments highlight an important element of any walkable neighborhood: so much of its success relies on people simply noticing their surroundings and talking to each other. Even if you're in an area that requires long distance driving, consider hopping on the bus instead of isolating yourself in a car. Smile at the folks you pass on the street, say hello to the store clerks and bus drivers and delivery guys you come into contact with. These individual actions create small connections as you go, and enough of them can create a real sense of community.

I think there's a little Marcovaldo in all of us, desperate to feel comfortable and safe in the outside world. Walkable neighborhoods create these feelings—but it's people that create walkable neighborhoods.

Eric is currently planning a website that "will profile many of the various walkable neighborboods in the U.S., so people interested in living in these types of neighborhoods can more easily find them." In the meantime, he's provided the following resources on walkable neighborhoods:

Suburban Nation by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck
Fast Food Nation gives some history on sprawl
Other books that I've heard are fantastic, but I haven't read include: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, and The Geography of Nowhere by James Kunstler.

For blog junkies like myself, my favorites are:
My own (of course): walkableneighborhoods.com (I do have a list of helpful links and resources there)
CoolTown Studios
Planning Livable Communities
Veritas et Venustas

Other great websites include:
Walk Sydney Streets Photos
Smart Growth America
American Planning Association's website


1 Comment(s)

Blogger Debo Hobo said...

Now this was a truly useful and informative post. Here in Dallas, TX-US we have a lot of neighborhoods that have been grown out of refurbishing the down town cityscape as well as in the suburban out lying areas(the elite areas). These neighborhoods come complete with shops, eateries, cleaner etc everything one would have to drive out to utilize. Before reading this article I thought that would be a drag seeing the same folk and scenery everyday. What an awakening this article is. It may be time for me to move.

5:18 PM  

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