The Walking Life
Park and walk: Good advice for all, including council members
Sunday, April 11, 2004
By Thomas Hylton
A few years ago, I joined seven Southern mayors for a conference in Chattanooga sponsored by the Mayors' Institute on City Design. We spent at least five minutes squeezing into a van waiting in front of our downtown hotel for the trip to a museum where the conference was being held.
To my surprise, our destination was just up the street - so close we arrived in less time than it took to load the van. I knew then we were in trouble. If mayors can't walk a couple of blocks, they're going to have great difficulty understanding urban design.
Nashville faces a similar challenge, judging by recent accounts of two Metro council members expecting to park adjacent to City Hall rather than walk two blocks from a free parking garage. For all of Mayor Bill Purcell's efforts to promote good urban design, these elected officials still don't get it.
For thousands of years, cities and towns have been organized around one fundamental principle: the walking scale. From ancient Mesopotamia to Main Street, USA, you could walk for your daily activities. The bigger the city, the greater number of walkable neighborhoods it contained. As cities expanded in the late 19th century, trains and streetcars enabled people to ride from one walking-scale neighborhood to another. This remained true through the first half of the 20th century, when the use of cars was adapted to existing neighborhoods.
Since then, however, we've transformed our surroundings with massive highways and parking lots to accommodate unfettered use of the car. Only fragments of the true city - compact walkable neighborhoods - remain, and Americans have embraced cars so completely, we've almost forgotten how to walk. Meanwhile, car-scale development has expanded the metropolitan area to near galactic proportions.
Metro Nashville-Davidson County houses less than a third as many people as Paris - a classic walking-scale city - but it covers nearly 12 times as much land. And yet, thanks to excessive reliance on the car, people are migrating still farther out. During the next 20 years, every county in Middle Tennessee is expected to grow faster than Nashville-Davidson. Each day, the region paves over 60 acres of farms and forests. This trend is simply not sustainable.
Besides the huge environmental problems generated by sprawl, we're ruining our health. Because we're not walking anymore, more than half of us are overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity will soon overtake cigarette smoking as the leading cause of premature death. Every month, we lose as many Americans to car accidents as we lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And instead of being out in the fresh air, we're condemning ourselves to a wearisome life of constant driving.
A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt preached "the strenuous life" rather than one of "ignoble ease." Our civic leaders need to rediscover that message. Walking is the best form of exercise - for our physical and mental health - and the only mode of transportation that can support compact neighborhoods.
As one who has lived his entire life in the walking-scale towns of Pennsylvania, I can attest to their merit. Having grown up walking to school, I was careful to buy a house just a block from the newspaper where I worked for 22 years. My wife made a special effort to teach at our neighborhood elementary school. Our way of life has saved us tens of thousands of dollars, countless hours behind the wheel and an enormous amount of stress.
Nashville's Urban Design Center is a national model for demonstrating how the public and private sectors can collaborate to make great walking-scale communities. We need beautiful buildings, like the new public library, to admire on our walks. We need big street trees and interesting storefronts and a variety of houses so attractive we can't wait to get out of our cars to enjoy them up close and personal.
When will the design center fulfill its destiny? When every council member says, "Thanks, I'd rather walk."