A Great Place To Visit, But…

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Strong Towns’ Daniel Herriges published a great piece in March of this year about the observation that, in the US, walkability seems to equate to greater tourism more than creating a livable urban or small town environment. In this article, Herriges uses several examples of walkable towns, which all seem to be havens for weekend B&B rentals and antique shops rather than places where people actually want to live. Hudson, New York and Niagara-On-The-Lake come to mind as classic examples in the region I live in. Small towns that draw scads of stir-crazy weekenders who want to enjoy quaint shopping and dining experiences on foot. People want to feel the hustle and bustle of small business density in a small-town setting where walkability plays a pivotal role in the whole experience. Park your car at your Bed and Breakfast and walk into and around town for an experience that makes you feel like a 1920s small town shopper for a day.

What I’m going to say next isn’t a criticism of any of these tourist-friendly towns and small cities. I appreciate when any small town can dust off their former industrial mainstays for a completely new and different revenue stream. There is nothing wrong with this. But ultimately, these towns are seen as small scale Disney Worlds for people over 40. They arouse our senses and make us feel like we are in a place that truly moves at a slower pace… while giving us opportunities to spend our money on arts, crafts, home goods, clothes and good food and drink.

But when the weekend is over, Americans rush back to their obsession with the cul-de-sac house and the .73 acres of land. No shops, no restaurants, save the local Walmart, Target, Olive Garden and Applebees that are a 9 minute drive along a 4 lane roadway. Sure there’s a sidewalk, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It sits there serving power walkers and the occasional kid on a big wheel.

We as a country love the idea of walkable towns and cities, but at the end of the day, we want nothing more than to escape into the place that is only for us and people who look like us. It is our shield against the winds of change, the tides of society and the buzz of human life. No chance for a “vagrant” to stumble into our community… if he doesn’t have a car, he simply can’t get here. And most of all, this lifestyle allows us all to insulate, exposed to the happenings of the real world only via whatever partisan news outlet that fits our political and social worldview.

I turn 40 in January. My wife and I decided many years ago to not have children. We live in an apartment just 2 miles from downtown Rochester, New York. I live 4 miles from my job and bike to work every day. My wife likes to drive, but we live 2 miles from where she works… and since the pandemic began she has worked from home. We’ve seen most of our friends do what Americans do… have kids and move out of the city in favor of more land, more “security” and better schools. I love our friends and support every decision they feel is right for their family. You can’t blame someone for making a choice that they truly believe is best.

But I also see the seemingly incurable perpetuation of the American pattern… the thought that “growing up” means owning more land, having a bigger house and bigger cars. The desire to “keep my family safe” is starting to sound to me like “keep me and my family from seeing anything that might challenge us to think differently about the world.” The family that aligns with “fiscal conservatism” is the same family that owns two full-sized SUVs that cost $35,000 each, commuting 30-40 minutes each way, alone in their 7-seat cages every day. It is the reason we spend more on transportation than we spend on food.

For most Americans, walkability isn’t a way of life. It’s a marketing tool, a tourist draw and a social daydream for the cul-de-sac parent who just wants to spend a weekend briefly cheating on their ultimate desire for an unchallenged, homogenous lifestyle. Just like malls don’t like bus stops because they welcome an “unwanted element,” suburban living rejects the entrance of outsiders by creating physical islands that are only accessible by car, thus negating the true meaning of “walkability.”

To the good people who read this and feel attacked for their choice to embrace the cul-de-sac lifestyle, please know that I understand. I grew up in a white-washed suburb, blissfully beaming in my ignorance. I was fortunate enough to be be born in Chicago, with parents who exposed me a diverse world. And while it took me 30 years to truly appreciate the sterilized, car-powered pull of suburban America, I was open to the information, as difficult as it was to hear initially. I only ask that we all continue to listen with an open mind and a compassionate heart.

When we talk about walkability, we need to ask ourselves the hard question… is this walkability meaningful or is it a buzz word that serves the illusion of an equitably-connected community? Do we embrace walkability as a way of life, or as a recreational escape? Until we make this distinction, walkability in the U.S. will continue to be a revenue generator rather than a social equalizer.