A new movement that’s got legs
It might be going too far to say that pedestrians have bounced back from the brink of extinction. But it’s certainly true that people’s habit of walking almost disappeared in the 20th century beneath a rising tide of auto traffic. According to James Nolan, an American in Spain, the streets of Madrid are once again filled with people on foot. Even in the United States, where the car is king, a growing movement is reasserting citizens’ right to take a walk. Utne editor Jay Walljasper chronicles this pedestrian uprising and discovers its secret weapon.
— The Editors
One of the local characters in the small city where I grew up was Judge Green. A towering figure, probably 6 feet 7, he was widely admired around town, in part because he had been star of the only Urbana High School team ever to make it to the championship game of the Illinois state basketball tournament. I remember him as a cheerful man who greeted everyone with a smile. But there was one thing that made him seem a bit peculiar: He walked to work every day. If you drove down Broadway at certain hours, you couldn’t miss him striding along the sidewalk.
One day, home from college and already an ardent environmentalist, I was walking uptown myself when it dawned on me that Judge Green’s home was only a few blocks from the courthouse — hardly more than half a mile. I was shocked. The man many folks thought eccentric (and I thought heroic) for not driving to work each morning was covering a distance that would be nothing to pedestrians in Europe, or most other places outside the United States. How sad, I sighed. There really is no hope that Americans will ever get out of their cars if a half-mile walk looks to them like an Olympic endurance event.
Walking, in many ways, is still viewed as an exotic and slightly odd habit. Try this experiment: Announce at a party or gathering that you are walking home. I’ll bet you, two-to-one odds, that someone will offer a ride, even if you’re going just three blocks and it’s a sunny 80 degrees outside. This is a generous gesture, of course, seen by most folks as akin to giving a glass of water to someone who says they’re thirsty. Why walk if you could ride?
The answer to that question, however, is more complicated than it used to be. The net effect of 250 million Americans always taking the car results in polluted skies, congested roads, global warming, burgeoning obesity, and a growing sense of isolation in most American communities.
Our decision to drive, made over and over again, has eliminated the option to walk in more than a few places. Many kids, old people, poor people, and disabled people are living under a form of house arrest, unable to go anywhere without finding someone to chauffeur them. Sidewalks are seen as an unnecessary luxury in most suburbs, and 60 years of traffic “improvements” on America’s streets have rendered many communities unfit for pedestrians. We now depend on cars to accomplish the simplest human acts — going to school, visiting friends, getting groceries. People drive today even to take a walk because the streets around their homes feel inhospitable.
Yet one thing has changed for the better since I was a kid in the days of cheap gas, open roads, and plentiful parking. Increasing numbers of Americans — seeing a future of traffic jams, soulless sprawl, and never-ending wars for oil — are looking for ways to get out of the driver’s seat, at least some of the time. Even as politicians in Washington allocate billions for another round of megahighway construction and pop culture celebrates the sexy supremacy of Hummer drivers, there is an emerging movement to reclaim our right to walk.
All across the land, people are speaking up, organizing meetings, fighting city hall, and, in some cases, working with city hall to make streets safer and more pleasant for pedestrians. They’ve gotten crosswalks painted in some places, streets narrowed in others, stop signs and speed bumps installed, zoning ordinances changed to promote pedestrian-friendly businesses, and new programs created to help kids walk or bike to school.
These are issues that reach deep into the heart of our lives. Two neighbors bump into one another on the sidewalk and start talking about planting more flowers along the street, turning an empty storefront into a coffee shop, or lobbying the city council to add bike lanes to a busy road. In small but important ways, these people are changing the face of America, block by block.
This is a classic grassroots movement, with no clearly identifiable leaders. But a number of the people most active in the cause have been inspired by a former seminary student, magazine editor, and window washer from Brisbane, Australia, named David Engwicht. Marked-up copies of Engwicht’s books, Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns and Street Reclaiming (both New Society Publishers; www.newsociety.com), are passed from hand to hand at community meetings and potlucks across North America.
Engwicht’s message is as simple as it radical. For nearly all of human history, he declares, streets belonged to everybody. Kids played there, dogs slept there, people stopped there to flirt or gossip. But over recent decades, beginning in Detroit and spreading over much of the world, streets have been seized for the exclusive use of cars and trucks. Most communities have never recovered from this theft. Deprived of our neighborhood gathering spots, we’ve retreated to the backyard or indoors to avoid the noise, smell, and danger of speeding traffic. We’ve withdrawn from one another in the process.
Engwicht admits he didn’t realize all this until he attended a public meeting about the widening of a road near his home in a Brisbane suburb. At first he was persuaded by city officials’ arguments in favor of a wider road, but he changed his mind after listening to neighbors talk about how it would affect their lives.
Although he was up to his neck in starting a window-washing business, Engwicht decided to write a rebuttal to all the assertions thrown around by “experts” who wanted to widen the road. “Because I didn’t have any background in traffic engineering or urban planning, or even environmental activism, I had a fresh view,” he explained to me in an expansive interview at a St. Paul brewpub during a break from the most recent ProBike/ProWalk conference, a biannual gathering of activists sponsored by the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.
In his research he discovered how citizens in the Dutch city of Delft outwitted speeding motorists by strategically placing old couches, tables, and planters in the street. Cars could still pass, but only by slowing down. When police arrived, they immediately realized the value of these illegal actions to make the streets safer. Soon city officials were devising similar methods to slow cars and “calm” traffic.
Traffic Calming, the booklet Engwicht wrote to make the case against road widening, turned the tide in his hometown and took on a life of its own. He expanded it into the book Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns, which inspired a group of neighbors and me to organize resistance to the proposed widening of an already unsafe street near our homes in Minneapolis. At a public meeting, we outlined Engwicht’s ideas about traffic calming, quoting from the book and noting that streets could be redesigned so people and cars could share the space. Road-widening projects had been opposed around town many times before, but rarely stopped because city officials succeeded in branding opponents as “anti-progress.” We, however, were able to win over the crowd by articulating a vision of what we were for, rather than just what we were against. The city dropped its plans to widen the avenue that very night.
Engwicht soon forgot his window-washing business as offers arrived from around the world to help communities think differently about pedestrians and streets. He delivers many talks each year and has been called in to help design people-friendly road projects in places from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Waikiki Beach.
Engwicht suggests that we treat the street as an “outdoor living room” and find ways to use it for more than just transportation of people and goods. He now believes that traffic-calming efforts must encourage vital public life just as much as discourage speeding motorists. “Kids playing on the sidewalk or beautiful canopies of trees over the streets slow traffic more than speed bumps,” he told me. “There are all kinds of fun things a neighborhood can do to accomplish this. When I get back home, I am going to put a bench in my front yard to get people to stop awhile, and maybe help kids on the block create scarecrows to put up along our street. Drivers will definitely slow down to look at that.”
Anyone joining this burgeoning movement to make America more walkable soon discovers the key issue is not urban planning or transportation priorities but love. Places we love become places that we hang out, and those are always the best places for walking. Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), means that almost literally. “If I had to summarize our work in one image,” he said, leading me through a maze of shops in New York’s Chinatown, “it would be a couple smooching on a park bench.”
Kent actually has thousands of pictures of people hugging and kissing on city streets on file among the hundreds of thousands of photos he’s shot in 30 years as a tireless advocate for public places. His deep love for street life became apparent when I visited the PPS office last December. Every time we sat down to talk, Kent suggested we take a walk, so for several days I trailed him through the streets of New York as he snapped photos, pointed out favorite spots, and shouted answers to my questions above the hubbub of the city.
“Isn’t it fun when you don’t know where you’re going to wind up?” Kent asked with a grin as we wandered through the winding streets of Greenwich Village, stopping to talk with two well-dressed and slightly tipsy couples from Auburn, Alabama, who were enjoying their walk as much as we were.
Inspired by William H. Whyte, a noted journalist and author who invented a “smile index” to measure the quality of urban spaces, Kent founded PPS in 1975 with environmental designer Kathleen Madden and architect Steve Davies to draw attention to the importance of creating and preserving congenial public settings where people can walk, talk, and just enjoy themselves. The group gained international acclaim for its part in the revival of Bryant Park, the backyard of the New York Public Library, once overrun with drug dealers and now one of New Yorkers’ most beloved places.
With a staff of 24, PPS worked in 31 states and 11 countries last year, joining with local citizen groups, public officials, foundations, and businesses to engage in “placemaking.” This means taking every opportunity to look at streets, parks, buildings, transportation, and public markets with an eye toward promoting public life and pedestrian activity. Through workshops, seminars, a participatory “Place Game” they’ve created, and a book, How to Turn a Place Around, PPS offers a grassroots approach to help people make their communities more livable and lovable.
“Those who live in a place are the experts on that place,” Kent told me. “They know more than architects, urban planners, traffic engineers, landscape architects, and real estate agents about what will make that place thrive. But often they are not even asked about their ideas.”
The central point of PPS’s work, everyone involved with the organization will tell you, is that projects need to be “place-driven.” By that, they mean that any effort to improve a place should not be viewed strictly as a question of economic development, or crime control, or affordable housing, or architectural excellence. These are worthy goals, but they cannot be achieved if too little attention is devoted to creating a vital place where people will want to live, work, or visit — a place they will care about.
“The single thing that makes a place a good place is that it is interesting,” Kent explained as we strolled down Fifth Avenue toward Central Park. “And that’s the same with a good place to walk. I love to walk down this street not because of the fancy shops. I love it because there’s always a surprise, a sense of serendipity, great people-watching, and moments of just pleasure.”
“Of course,” he added as we stepped into the Plaza Hotel to look over the elegant lobby and use the bathroom, “I like Chinatown more. It has all the life of Fifth Avenue but with different accents and price tags. And Mulberry Street in Little Italy — it’s so nice and alive and messy. There is nothing you could do to make that place any more interesting.”
A few minutes later, as we headed up Madison Avenue to explore the Upper East Side, I looked over at Kent, his face shining with the excitement of a kid on the first day of summer vacation, and thought of Judge Green back in my hometown. A reserved Midwesterner rather than an ebullient Easterner, Judge Green nonetheless had the same wide, sincere smile as he strolled through the streets of Urbana. Then it dawned on me: The way to get people out of their cars (something I had been wondering about since college) is not to chide them about ruining the environment or shame them about being fat but to show them how much fun, and how much of life itself, they are missing by not walking. And how much more fun we’d all have if we created better places for everyone across America to take a walk.
Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne magazine.