When friends and relatives from Europe come to visit me in the U.S. for the first time, they inevitably experience a twofold culture shock: First, there is much less public transportation available here than they are used to and, second, it is almost impossible to get around on foot, not only because of the distances but also because of the absence of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. For me, this usually means that I will be chauffeuring them for much of the duration of their stay.
For us Americans, driving in our own cars wherever we go is such an integral part of our lives that we hardly ever question it. We like our independence, but it also comes with a price. Our dependency on automobiles has consequences for our environment, our finances, our health and our communities.
A Trend Away From Urban Sprawl to High Quality City Life
“Drivable suburbia” is a development pattern that started back in the 1950s and has been the dominant kind of residential planning ever since. With more and more people moving to the suburbs in search of affordable homeownership, the sprawl continued for decades. What often got lost in the process was a sense of community. Neighborhoods were reduced to bedroom communities. Residents lived side-by-side but not together. But now, slowly but surely, things are beginning to change in many parts of the country. Walkable town centers are being rediscovered and redesigned to meet the needs of a new generation of urban dwellers.
Walkability is more and more considered as an important factor for the quality of urban life. Demand for safe walkways and pedestrian zones is growing. But still changes start mostly from the bottom up. For instance, in Denver, Colorado, an architect and a cardiologist teamed up to start a non-profit group called “Walk Denver” with the goal to turn their city into a walk-friendly community. Their initial idea was to promote public health by offering more opportunities to exercise, but the potential benefits reach much further.
Denver, which is already known as one of America’s healthier cities, wants to enable 15 percent of its population to get to work on bike or on foot by 2020. City officials say they hope not only to reduce inner city traffic but also contribute to the physical health of the Denver populace by enticing it to walk more.
“When I moved from Poland to the U.S., I got my driver’s license and I gained 20 pounds,” said Gosia Kung, the architect and co-founder of the “Walk Denver” program in an interview with the New York Times (2/14/2012). She found that the simple exercise of walking in the streets the way she used to in her former home country was sufficient to lose weight and keep her healthy. Now her goal is to inspire others to follow her example, starting with young children in her latest endeavor she calls “Walking School Bus.”
“Compact, walkable communities – the opposite of poorly planned sprawl – are the solution to some of the biggest shared challenges, from childhood obesity to social isolation, from crash deaths to disappearing farmland, from the high price of gas to the architectural blight of strip development,” says Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, a non-profit research center for sustainable urban development in Seattle. He thinks that walking is still a largely underappreciated component of the urban transportation system in this country. But there is a lot of creative inspiration right now that has the potential to change all that.
Some health experts see a direct connection between walkability of cities and the Body Mass Index (BMI) of their population. Besides weight control, greater walkability has also shown many other individual and community health benefits such as opportunities for social interaction, reduced crime rates and increased participation in volunteer programs, to name a few.
To learn more about the walkability of your own home town, you can go to a number of websites like Walkscore, Walkonomics or RateMyStreet, which give you detailed information about pedestrian-friendly areas near you.