For most of my life I have lived in walkable cities and avoided owning a car until just a few years ago (and even then used it very, very rarely). There is something to be said for walking cities; a sense of community is somehow (and often unknowingly) created.
Having spent the past couple of days in New York followed by today in Copenhagen, I am reminded of this. I had often heard that New York was a rude, cold, unforgiving city yet my experiences were anything but. When I had lunch with my friends, and mentioned this Felicia told me that New York had a sense of community (Summer and Sara, two transplants to NY who were also there, agreed). When a man tripped on the sidewalk, four people stopped to help. When a tough-looking guy walked down the street and blew off cigarette smoke inadvertently into my face, he apologised. I was often told by clerks to have a nice day and was chatted up on the subway – twice! But I really noticed when, walking with Felicia, we ran into her friend and the next day, when I was walking with my mum who had just joined me, ran into people she had sat beside on the plane ride over!
In Copenhagen, the cobblestone stone streets are large enough for three things; people, cars and bikes but cars get last billing. Here, there are even several walking streets in which bikes aren’t even permitted. Getting around the city on foot allows you to really take things in and see the city in a way that perhaps you’d miss if you were to zoom by in a car.
For me, walking allows me the time to notice how people live where I live; who has moved out, who has moved in, who bought a new TV, what new store is opening and which one closed. I can see flowers coming up or bend down to pick up fall leaves. Walking helps me connect to the buildings, the flora and the people in a way being in a car never could.
It is also how I stay fit; running errands, putting letters to post, getting groceries, visiting friends. But these things are easy to do in certain cities; London, Paris, New York, Vancouver, Copenhagen where the streets are set up for this as are the metros. In most suburban cities (or even smaller cities), walking is harder as a lot of communities do not even have sidewalks or even if they did, there is nothing to walk to (the local grocer and cafe seem to be vanishing in newly built communities). Also transit or walking in most places in the US has a stigma attached to it so getting around without a car is next to impossible.
Living in Santa Monica California I hardly ever used a car, finding it very easy to have a walkable lifestyle. That is, as long as I stayed in Santa Monica. Getting to the rest of LA proved hard without a car. And this is perhaps why I often felt disconnected to LA despite knowing it inside and out and connected almost immediately to New York even though I was still getting my bearings.
I think if a person hasn’t experienced a walking city it can be hard to understand just how much walking connects a person to their city and neighbours. How aware it makes you of others, of your streets, of your businesses and just how much tension it can release when you walk to pick up milk instead of getting in your car (and let’s not even get into the environmental/financial aspect of it).
Oh how I’d love to take city planners and residents of unwalkable cities to those in which you could get around on foot so that they could see the difference walking makes. But since this plan cannot be put into motion for a little while at least, I would offer that if you do live in a walkable city, to walk it for a week and if you don’t, see if there’s anything you could do to make it so.
PS: A great story of how one couple sold their 3,200sf home in the burbs for a 1,200sf condo in the city and the wonderful effects it had on them both.