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Walkabout to Repair Your City

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One Sunday morning several years ago my friend Shaun and I walked a couple of miles from our university campus in Atlanta to a certain 24-hour diner for breakfast. Atlanta, like so many cities in North America, is highly automobile-centric. Most people get places – even places just two miles away – by driving in their glass and metal pods, oblivious to the smaller stitches that bind together the community, infrastructure, economy and aesthetics of their city. I was as guilty of this as anyone, which is why I took such notice of just how run-down and shabby so much of the walk was. Some stretches as short as twenty meters were downright danger-havens, obstructing the healthy and secure flow of what otherwise should have been a routine walking path. Broken and stolen bicycles littered a small clearing in the kudzu between an abandoned building, the busiest interstate highway in the South, and a flimsy mesh-wire fence that separated a one-way four-lane road from the small green buffer to the highway. The litter, organic and non, of homeless people, drunks and troublemakers stank under a small bridge. There stood few to no trees whatsoever to provide shelter or windbreaks, and the sidewalks sat low enough to allow an idling car to jump the curb. When cars turned, they turned extremely close to the junction of the crosswalk and the sidewalk, such that we had to walk well away from the edge of the area specifically designated for pedestrians to avoid grievous injury.

That walk opened my eyes to the negative effects of driving everywhere, or perhaps more importantly the expectation of driving everywhere.  In your car you are protected from all manner of the elements, the refuse and the antagonism of the brave new world.  Distances shrink such that you have no reason to focus on anything more than a dangerous intersection or an extended stretch of poorly-paved road.  In this relativity distortion field, an unsightly ten-meter stretch becomes as significant as a discolored brick at the base of a building.  When you see how unpleasant walking can be in many cities, it either turns you off to walking altogether or leads you to take solace in the knowledge that next time, you can drive.  Thus only the committed and specifically interested – mostly those who don’t or can’t afford to drive their own cars – can take stock of the problems and arrange to solve them.  Unfortunately, that usually means going through the bureaucracy of City Hall, and fixing the problem will cost money, which turns everybody off.  Advocates and stakeholders in walkable town development are stuck unless your city is forward-looking, the neighborhood association is educated and influential, or some agents of gentrification like Starbucks and real estate developers decide to make inroads to the area – which usually means that the streets are deserted and dangerous at night when no one is out shopping for $5 ice cream and imported clothing!

What if you had to walk everywhere for one month?  Imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and your car is gone.  Every bus in the city has stopped working, and all other modes of public transportation like light rail and subways no longer function.  Even your bicycle has turned to cast iron.  The entire city is struck with the incapacitation of every form of mechanical transport.  All you can do in this car-free town is walk.

You still have to pay the bills by working, and you still have to buy and eat food.  If you are lucky your boss will let you telecommute, but no one is going to deliver any food to you when they would have to walk just like you.  Now you actually have to walk to the grocery store.  You have to walk to friends’ houses, or to bars, or to places of worship or the post office.  This month is probably going to be the most hard-learning month you have faced, if you are a fortunate person.  The size of your front yard will become apparent like never before when every time you return home you have to walk its length rather than zip past it on the driveway.  Your street never seemed this long when you were driving!  And how are there only three houses between yours and the curb?  You never noticed how much space was wasted around you.  Alternatively, you could be pleased to note how many front doors of businesses and residences you can pass in five minutes of walking, and you may have never noticed half of the stores you see now that you have to look.

If you need to walk to pick up food or some other commodity, you may be highly disappointed to realize how far away a neighborhood commercial center is.  You could pass one hundred houses with no break for parks or businesses before reaching a marginally diverse commercial zone that offers food, mechanical supplies, fuel, and a service or two like a gym or church.  The parking lot will seem like a flat barren wasteland to you  now.  There are probably no trees, or perhaps only small rows of perfectly-cut shrubs, to offer a micro-climate supporting living things like birds and insects.  Take a look around, and unless you live in a pretty upscale neighborhood you will notice broken glass, plastic and trash, the artifacts of car accidents and human neglect.  If it is hot outside, it will be so twice over on your walk.  You can’t look forward to the air conditioner on your way back, and the blacktop will bake like a river from hell.  It could be cold, and then your survivability comes into question – if it’s too cold to walk far enough to get fuel and food, how are you going to survive?  Your neighborhood is built such that without personal vehicles, an innovation less than one hundred years old, you become a veritable Daniel Boone in your own city.  Hope you’ve stocked up for the winter!

Not everything is bad, even though your city is engineered to make walking less efficient than driving.  Places that used to be dangerous to walk around may now be filled with peaceful people whose presence discourages violent crime and theft.  If you are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood which is as walkable as it is drivable, you could discover new amenities and pleasures close to home.  In the process you ought to become closer to your neighbors.  One thing you will likely discuss with them is that you never noticed how bad the sidewalk is on this stretch of Eleventh Street, or how you wish there were more trees to shade the walk.  A neighbor will mention how unsightly this or that building is, which they never noticed until today.  Shame, too, since it would make a great music hall.  Across town a group of neighbors are planning improvements for their area and removing old furniture blocking an alleyway frequented by a gang.  They used to drive right past it, and stopped wondering long ago who put the blockage there.

Thirty days later (let’s assume you don’t know when you will regain use of your vehicles), people are walking paths within a quarter mile of their home that four weeks ago they never knew existed.  Crime in most neighborhoods is at its lowest in decades – except for the affluent ones, where bored rich kids vandalize each others’ homes at night.  Although there is a lot of trash that has not been picked up by the sanitation department in the last month, it has been compacted and arranged to ensure that it does not make walking unpleasant.  Among the trash in those piles is all of the urban refuse that littered the sidewalks and underpasses before the Day the Wheels Stopped Moving.  Flowers, and some small herb and vegetable gardens, are planted in every median.  There is a tree fort on every block.  People have learned to stretch their dollars when buying food.  Every business that can incorporate it now knows the value of telecommuting.  People are less stressed.  You have made several new friends and have joined two new community organizations, as well as a community sport.  The team plays the neighborhood across the bridge in three days.

When you wake up tomorrow morning and find your car in your garage once more, what will you do?

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Written by Preston

July 29th, 2010 at 6:30 am

3 Responses to 'Walkabout to Repair Your City'

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  1. I don’t think you’ve really considered the disastrous consequences of automated transportation suddenly ceasing to function. Mass exodus from cities all over the world to find food, complete lawlessness taking over, reagrarianization, collapse of urban based industries, people dying of common injuries while carrying other people with common injuries to the hospital. I don’t like this world. I don’t like this world one bit!

    Sean

    30 Jul 10 at 12:28

  2. I agree that the post doesn’t take into account all of the complex results of removing wheeled transport. Perhaps I should have included a couple of clarifications in the post, most importantly that I didn’t imagine inter-city transport disappearing. Thus, the great supply chain of food and energy could still occur between regions.

    The point of the post is to consider how much traveling quickly and protected in cars and subways makes us miss the inches and step-by-step connections that form our communities. We don’t have to face them when they don’t affect us. Disappearing cars and unworkable bicycles seems an appropriately radical “what if” scenario to force our eyes and minds on the tiny breakdowns that hobble one way we could live.

    Preston

    1 Aug 10 at 13:04

  3. Interesting article from WIRED magazine which discusses design to integrate pedestrians and cars by essentially making driving more psychologically dangerous: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/traffic.html
    Preston´s last blog ..Tibet Trip

    Preston

    12 Aug 10 at 03:46

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