Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Within Walking Distance, by Philip Langdon

In my suburban Texas neighborhood, to get to the closest restaurant is a mile walk on a street with no sidewalk.  The nearest grocery store is closer to two miles.  Don't get me wrong; I like our quiet street, the lake across the street, and the woods behind us.  But it sure would be nice to have some shopping and dining options within a few minute's walk from my front door.

That is the dream that Philip Langdon writes about in Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All.  Better said, that is the reality that he writes about, leading people like me to dream about living in a walkable neighborhood.  Langdon gives a detailed case study of 6 walkable communities around the United States, examining what makes them unique and what other communities might learn to become more walkable.

He defines the reference point of walkability as follows: "Building a city or town at the scale of the pedestrian meant that any able-bodied person could navigate the full range of local businesses, homes, institutions, and attractions without relying on anything more than his or her own power."  That's the ideal, and some of the homes in some of the neighborhoods he surveyed fit this description. 

Walkability is a wonderful ideal, and can be a factor for many people looking to relocate.  While the communities he profiles--and countless others--are walkable, Langdon doesn't sufficiently address some of the questions and barriers that prevent neighborhoods from being walkable.  Each of his profiled communities arguably have factors that predispose them to being or becoming walkable: proximity to a major city center and the jobs found there, proximity to a major university, a location that draws tourism and seasonal residents, or ethnic roots that presume deep community ties.

It also seemed that he communities he describes are destination locations.  While residential space is there, specialty stores, restaurants, street fairs and other entertainment, open-air markets, parks and the like draw many non-residents.  So, yes, it's walkable for the residents, but the viability of the area depends on attracting non-residents to patronize local establishments.  I don't see this as a problem, but I think it's worth pointing out that the walkable communities Langdon describes and promotes are not necessarily self-sustaining communities.  They are surrounded by more common suburban tracts or dispersed homes, whose residents hop in their cars to go to a walkable neighborhood for shopping, dining, entertainment, or recreation.

What would it take for my neighborhood and others like it to become walkable?  Lots of little stores and restaurants popping up in close proximity to one another.  Why doesn't that happen?  Because little stores and restaurants tucked away in walkable neighborhoods have great difficulty making a profit.  Does it happen?  Yes, happily, sometimes they survive.  But the reality is larger stores and restaurants on prominent thoroughfares draw more traffic and make more money.  Economies of scale are hard realities.

One other thing: with the population density of a walkable neighborhood, homes tend to be much smaller and much more expensive.  In my city, I can live in a $200,000, 1875 sq. foot home and drive everywhere, or I can move downtown to some more walkable neighborhoods and pay that for a one bedroom with 1/3 the square feet.  I am not willing to make that trade off.

I enjoyed reading about the neighborhoods in Within Walking Distance.  Someday if I don't have kids at home and have a lot more money, living in a neighborhood like that would be nice.  For now, it's a model for a select demographic.  Thankfully we live in a country that is diverse enough geographically and economically that highly concentrated, walkable neighborhoods can exist alongside their more spacious, less densely populated neighbors, sometimes in the same city.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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