Recently, on a tour of several apartment communities, I kept hearing the term “walkable” being used when features such as sidewalks (which really led to nowhere interesting) and green spaces (in the middle of parking lots) were highlighted. This was unfortunate, in that it essentially reduced walkability to infrastructure. I say this because the most fundamental feature of what is considered a walkable neighborhood was missing…people! There was not one person visible in what was being touted as a walkable space.
Walkability is a big part of what is driving development around the country, but at the end of the day, for me at least, it is more about where and how we live. I — and I would venture to say most people –want to live in a place that is safe, convenient, and enjoyable. Having studied community psychology, I am encouraged to know that individuals are the core of any community’s walkability — or lack thereof.
As we come to the end of our series on walkability, we wanted to take this opportunity to focus on you and me (us) as the focus of what makes a neighborhood walkable. This is great news, as we all have a hand in creating and sustaining our neighborhoods. If we dare to embrace our responsibility, we can turn the tide on our own blocks. Now, before we dive into some of the practicalities and tangible tips, let me say that I am intentionally taking a very micro-level view, a simple view, if you will, of what makes for a walkable neighborhood. I am leaving the greater systemic issues for another day and another conversation, because despite the macro influences in our community, I believe that we as individuals still hold a lot of power over what happens in our spaces. And be it micro or macro, nothing moves without the involvement of people (us).
So what can we do to make our own neighborhoods more walkable? It turns out quite a bit. First, and most obvious: get outdoors and walk! The more people walking, the better. Join or start a walking group — this type of sharing makes for an enjoyable activity. We know that walking together is good exercise, but it also goes a long way toward increasing the safety of our neighborhoods as it puts “more eyes on the street,” a phrase coined by the late Jane Jacobs, a grassroots urban theorist.
You could also take it a step further and organize a Jane’s walk, which get people out together, on foot, exploring and telling stories about their neighborhoods. Getting out and meeting neighbors is what develops the soul of a neighborhood, as neighborhoods are more than people simply living in close proximity to each other. For those of us who, perhaps, are not up for taking a stroll around the block, simply sitting on your porch and waving at the people walking by encourages a sense of belongingness that is what we mean when we talk about being part of a neighborhood.
My neighborhood is an extension of my home, and as such, it is important to me that people experience a sense of hospitality when they are visiting my home and neighborhood. Investing in the outdoor spaces of our homes adds to the visual interest and aesthetic beauty of any neighborhood. Taking the time to freshen up paint, adding flowers, pots, art, or simply keeping our spaces free of debris makes for a pleasant walking experience. Even beyond our immediate spaces, we can still have influence. For instance, if you have an empty lot in your neighborhood, plant some tree or a garden; organizations such as Greening of Detroit and Keep Growing Detroit are here to help.
As with most things, if we come together, we garner our social capital, which multiplies exponentially our individual efforts. Joining a neighborhood association or a block club and participating in their various activities speaks volumes. By bringing people together, these groups go a long way in accomplishing overall community goals: giving voice to issues that directly affect the fabric of our communities, sharing ideas, and fostering a sense of belonging that support the holistic concept of walkability. Detroit has a big push on for block clubs — take a look at Mayor Duggan’s slide share on how to start your block club. Block clubs assist in walkability in that they often organize coordinated decorations for various holidays, and host outdoor events that bring neighbors together.
Furthermore, as individuals and families, it is vital that we do our part in supporting small local businesses. It is helpful to have businesses within walking distance that help us to formulate the kind of neighborhoods we need and want to patronize. For example, if you have a local grocer in your area, shop there! Now, don’t misunderstand me; if you live near a subpar business that is not offering the goods and services that are needed in your neighborhood, we must take steps to rectify the situation. First, we must form relationships with shop owners so that we can have open and honest dialogue and achieve a cohesive vision that results in a win-win scenario: a scenario in which the proprietor provides for the needs of the neighborhood and is able to make a viable living.
So there we have it – we have come to the end of our series on walkability and we would like to leave you with what might possibly be the simplest, gentlest, and perhaps kindest approach to building walkability. This approach, practiced by many, has most eloquently been captured in a poem by lifelong native Detroiter Ms. Marsha Music…in an excerpt from her poem “Just Say Hi!”:
Just say Hi!
Hi says you’re in the city, and you’re glad to be here with me
Hi says you share this street, this store, this wait in line, stand with me
Hi says that you don’t fear we’ll ask, for dollars or a quarter
Hi says you’re not ignoring me, that we are all Detroiters
Hi says you don’t mean to offend, or make the wrong reply
Hi says you just don’t know what else to say, but Hi is fine
Hi says, I See You – You see Me; we’re in the D together
Hi says we’ll show each other how to live – we have the choice
Help me embrace you, teach you, know you – welcome to Detroit!
JUST SAY HI!