Everyone who gets around has been to the American city ranked the most walkable, which is New York. You walk so much there it’s no wonder everyone can grab a daily slice at the corner pizzeria and still be Audrey Hepburn-slim.
But it turns out I’ve also, randomly, been in what the urban planning outfit Walk Score calls our least walkable city: Fayetteville, North Carolina, which I visited for a friend’s wedding. And I do remember driving a lot. For every five miles of roadway, it turns out there is only one mile of sidewalk in Fayetteville.
Walk Score’s rankings are based on how easily residents can walk to and from their home, work, school, businesses, restaurants and entertainment. As we try to get beyond the car, we can all agree that city planners working to make it easier to walk around is a good thing, right? That’s not too fascist for you liberals nor too commie for you conservatives, is it? Hoping not.
But everything has its unintended side-effects — and its limits. Trees, as the economists are forever reminding us, don’t grow to the skies. The downsides of walkability are along the lines of everything associated with the otherwise laudable aspects of the New Urbanism: gentrification.
Plus, a certain twee-ness. I may like an old-fashioned village feel, but I certainly don’t want to live on Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland.
In a piece about how Barcelona — home to probably the greatest walking street in the world, Las Ramblas — is trying to make more diverse neighborhoods throughout the city more walkable as well, Vox noted that when American cities try to get more walkable, the result can be “isolated luxury items” rather than “real” neighborhoods.
It can certainly happen in Europe as well. In Spain last month, we enjoyed the fact that the streets of central Toledo are essentially car-free — only local residents, cabbies and cops are allowed to drive there. The streets are so narrow that drivers have to pull their side-view mirrors in just to get through un-scratched. Toledo has been primarily a tourist town for hundreds of years — if it feels a little “fake,” it’s been that way for a long time. It’s too much to expect the commercial activity to include very many hardware stores and corner groceries when locals make their bones on visitors. But it undeniably creates what my architect wife notes feels like a “petting zoo” of a downtown. Every other storefront seems to be either an artisanal ice cream purveyor or, crazily, a seller of long ceremonial swords that symbolize the city’s warring past. (We never saw a single sword being sold — how would you get it on the train, much less the plane? — but in the 100-degree heat, ice cream sold like … hot cakes.)
How to prevent the petting-zoo effect? As we long for the pedestrian joys of taking an evening stroll where the people-watching is excellent, how to keep it real?
That’s the conundrum facing urban planners and the electeds they work for. We know that interesting changes to our downtowns can be rung rather quickly. Look at how, during the worst of the pandemic, cities allowed restaurants to move seating onto the sidewalk and to commandeer parking spaces so that patrons could dine safely. Walking streets don’t have to be that 24-7 — merchants want trucks to have access for delivery in the early mornings, for instance. Bollards can be put up — and they can go down. The longest walking street in Europe, 1.25 km of the Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux, is big enough to be both upscale and downscale. What’s clear is that the dangers of twee don’t mean we should give up on trying to create great places where we can get around outside our cars.
Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. [email protected]