Monday, November 4, 2013

Talking about walking

This week we received a flyer in the mail from a City Council member running for re-election. He counts among his proudest accomplishments the approval of plans for redoing the Westdale Mall property. Well, I won't be voting for him. As I've already written, not only is the city's $10.5 million contribution outsized, but as a pocket bounded by multi-lane streets it does little to resolve issues of the city's future.

Designing a metropolitan area around the free movement of cars has specific negative consequences for people. A big, maybe the biggest, issue in this election is the condition of the city's streets, which are pretty bad in many places. Most candidates have endorsed a "yes" vote on the referendum to extend the one-cent sales surtax, with revenues dedicated to fixing the streets. I'm inclined to discount mayoral candidate Greg Hughes's complaint that the money was always there to keep up with the streets, but was spent on other things. Of course any expenditure has opportunity costs, and some degree of waste is inevitable no matter who's the mayor, but if all that money could be recalled and redirected to the streets we'd be hurting in other areas. Hughes's comments are true, strictly speaking, but not profound or helpful.

The problem is this: a sprawled city requires a lot of infrastructure, and with taxable property spread over a wide area will have trouble generating the revenue needed to keep up with maintenance and repairs. Even if the 2008 flood hadn't set so many things back, we'd be having trouble filling all the potholes. There's an argument to stop building new streets. As someone living less than two miles from downtown, why should my tax dollars subsidize developments farther and farther out? Which brings me back to crabbing about the money to facelift the mall. Let us move on.

Across the country, city planners are thinking urbanism, not redoing malls. All of a sudden, it seems, plugs for walkable cities are coming from a variety of places. "Cars are cars, all over the world," sings Paul Simon, but in the years after World War II the United States got a head start in automobile-focused development. In designing places around efficient car travel, we cut neighborhoods apart to make room for wider streets and interstate highways, made spaces between destinations wider in order to make room for parking lots, and for a long while stopped building sidewalks altogether. A more spread out society has more difficulty sustaining a public life, while those left behind are consigned to ghettos of extreme poverty. Effluents of auto engines pollute the air and contribute to climate change.

"White flight" was driven on the demand side by the hopes of escaping polluted, crime-infested central cities. Now data are emerging that the quiet and leafy suburbs have menaces of their own. A recent column in The New York Times's Tuesday Science section cites a number of studies to the effect that the costs of auto dependence "to both physical and mental health are hardly trivial." Long commutes to work, shopping and/or extra-curricular activities are associated with greater rates of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, exhaustion, stress, lack of sleep and days missed from work. The writer plugs Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher's "prophetic new book" The End of the Suburbs (Portfolio, 2013), which is certainly on my reading list.

I've also read the dangers to suburban children of cars is at least as great as the dangers to urban children of crime. No source I can put my finger on, though.

If future development is more walkable, more human-scaled, one of the heroes of this bend in the curve surely will be William B. Helmreich, a sociologist at the City College of New York who has just completed a book, The New York Nobody Knows, detailing his four-year project of walking every single one of the 150,000 blocks in America's largest city. Helmreich interviewed people he met about their neighborhoods, coming to discover that New York City, while large, is a very connected place. "Every block can be interesting," he says in the Atlantic post. "It's not about covering ground, it's how you cover ground." Walking, and public transit, allow for multiple interactions you can't get in motor vehicles, and so make for a more interesting place. Even cooler, Helmreich began his interest in urban neighborhoods as a boy, when he and his father explored the neighborhoods at the ends of different NYC subway lines. (They called their game "Last Stop." I might try it next time I'm in Chicago.)

(For the record, Cedar Rapids's Stoney Point subdivision lies at the end of the #8 bus line.)

Walkability is also a hot topic in Washington, D.C., where the Zoning Commission is about to begin hearings on proposed amendments to the zoning code that will relax some of the rigid statutes common to many zoning codes. Specifically, they will allow features like accessory apartments ("granny flats") and corner stores that are currently prohibited. Among other beneficial features of the proposals, they have the effects of increasing the population density of neighborhoods and providing practical places for people to walk. David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog anticipates a lot of resistance to the proposals from people who fear changes to their neighborhoods, and is soliciting testimonials from people who need affordable housing, or who would like to be able to walk to stores. More power to him.

For too long our residential designs have valued security above all else, except maybe convenience. These are individual values, and worthy of respect. But we need to live as if the community matters, too.


David Alpert, "Is a Walkable Neighborhood Out of Reach for You?" Greater Greater Washington, 1 November 2013,

Jane E. Brody, "Commuting's Hidden Cost," New York Times, 29 October 2013, p. D7

Stephanie Garlock, "One Sociologist's Epic Quest: Walk New York City, All 120,000 Blocks," The Atlantic Cities, 1 November 2013,

Rick Smith, "How Should We Fix Our Streets? Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3 November 2013, 1A, 9A,

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