You can’t go far these days without hearing the word “walkability.” If you ask the person who used the term what it means they often look a bit puzzled as though you were some kind of dunce, because of course we all think we know what it means. The term walkability is a word image, but that image isn’t exactly the same for everyone.
In Seattle if you sit in a Starbucks, say on Queen Anne, with your mate on Saturday afternoon you might be between 20 and 50 with a good job, live in a condo or an old, remodeled single family home, and you got to this location on foot. In fact you live in this neighborhood because you consider it walkable. Your walk is partly exercise, partly to visit a local establishment, and to meet friends or socialize en route. You’re much less likely to be there because it’s something you have to do. It’s a lifestyle choice.
Were you to be in an undeveloped nation with scattered villages, however, walkability takes on a different meaning. There you walk because you must. The farther back in history you go, the more you find walking wasn’t a recreation; it was survival. But here in Seattle in 2009 walking has very different meanings based on where you live and your economic status. The affluent walk for pleasure or recreation or physical conditioning, but the less affluent walk because they must.
One thing, for sure, is that city planners and elected officials all seem to use the word “walkability” often, and are intent on making laws, writing regulations, and funding programs to create walkability even if they can’t pinpoint exactly what it means. It’s not a plan so much as it’s a buzzword.
Urban planners, often in a theoretical world by themselves, say they are attempting to create a more functional city. They talk about walkability associated with transportation planning while others point to creating sustainable high-density neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as much as urban planners and lawmakers bandy about the term, it still has meanings that change depending on who you ask, where you ask, and how affluent is the person you ask.
My Crosscut colleague Knute Berger, when speaking about his new book Pugetopolis, tells of growing up in a Seattle neighborhood that had lots of stores where people walked to satisfy daily needs: the hardware store, the butcher shop, the dime store, the grocery. The store owners knew their customers, the parents, and their kids. It was local and a bit like an extended family. Sure there were cars, buses, bikes, and streetcars going and they were all used, but people walked because it was a convenient and free way to tend to daily needs. It was a model that evolved over time, and it worked because it was economically viable and there was something you needed at the other end of the trip.
But then the effects of “progress” descended on neighborhoods. Mom N’ Pop groceries were forced out by chain grocery stores like Safeway and Albertsons. Our loyalty to the local grocer who knew our kids by name faded as we flocked to the lower prices and greater variety of foods. We did the same thing with with hardware stores, drugstores, and neighborhood clothing stores or appliance stores. Home Depots and Fred Meyers and Walmarts and Costcos snatched the rest of the business from neighborhoods.
In this new economic model you can buy car accessories, groceries, new socks, baby diapers, and a new television in the same store. Somewhere in this evolution, which took an amazingly short period of time, the Mall or shopping center was created.
The Mall was created to be like the small town in America’s heartland, a place where you would arrive by horse and buggy and have all the goods you needed in a small walkable space. The modern version of the artificial small town, “the Mall” worked because it brought larger numbers of customers to stores with competitive prices, large selections of goods, and safe, clean surroundings. Progressive Seattleites hate to admit it, but Malls are walkable!
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