Urban Part 2: Walkable Communities

Urban humanism suggests that when cities bring diverse groups together, communities thrive. We understand one another, even if we are different, because we live and work and play side-by-side. Our ideas bounce off one another more quickly and effectively than if we had to shout into a suburban abyss. Just as universities bring together great minds to do great works, cities pack together the raw resource of humanity, people, into bustling, jostling, fun, joyful, scary, wonderful urban cores and we are better for it.

How do we make sure that cities thrive? How can urban areas serve their residents and be served by them? By putting the policies and infrastructure in place to make strong local communities that have the right amount of autonomy over their neighborhoods. Strong local communities, connected by smart infrastructure, make strong cities.

And strong local communities are, among other things, walkable.

Walkability is a hot topic right now. Millenials (all those young people writing blogs about made up terms like urban humanism) drive less and want to live in dense urban cores. Walkability is a catch-all term for the qualities that attract anyone to an urban area: close-by necessities and luxuries; green spaces; neighbors and visitors mingling. (Obviously this all includes bikability too; alternative transit options promote the walkable mindset).

Hartford Coffee Company
How does walkability promote strong communities? By turning residents into neighbors. Walking induces those chance encounters that make cities so powerful, while driving actively prevents them. These interactions with people on the street introduce us to the people we live by, giving us a chance to realize what we have in common. Hell, just looking one another in the eye—you know, acknowledging the existence of another human being—makes both parties happier. Strong communities are strong because they are communities of individuals who know one another, help one another, and work to achieve common goals.

Blackthorn Pizza Pub
So what does a real walkable neighborhood look like? Well, this is just one example: I was spending time in the Tower Grove area and although the South Grand district is certainly walkable and bustling, I am always captivated by the corner business. South St. Louis City has a lot of existing and defunct businesses built right smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods, providing a great example of mixed-use residential/commercial areas that encourage walking. Hartford Coffee Company and Blackthorn Pizza Pub are both great examples in the Tower Grove South neighborhood.

Converted to Residential Use
Unfortunately, a lot of these have been converted to residential use, perhaps because a drop in population meant fewer businesses could be supported in the neighborhood. Population density, once again, comes up as a key resource for developing thriving urban areas. You’ll almost never see this trend of corner businesses in suburban development, but it encourages neighbors to mingle and be, well, neighborly. There is also a tremendous urban park, ample biking areas, and a busy commercial district nearby plus mixed single- and multiple-family housing. All of these amenities promote ambling about and the mingling of diverse people.

(Arsenal also recently repainted their bike lanes to the gold standard: incorporating a buffer for the door zone.)

And walkability is promoted by a few pretty simple concepts that have been set aside for several decades but are apparent in some of the most thriving communities. Designing streets (not stroads—yes that’s a term now) that provide for pedestrians over cars. Street level housing that doesn’t retreat from the sidewalk. Mixed-use residential/commercial districts that promote integrated businesses over strip malls. Public transit and bike lanes. Deceptively simple things that can all add up to a friendlier, stronger community.

The ideas behind urban humanism can be read in a city’s street grids. Walkable areas are urban, in that they rely on densely-packed areas that reduce sprawl and can support local businesses; and humanistic, encouraging us to look one another in the eye, smile, say hello and share a thought, a small piece of our time and consciousness to tap into that most important resource: other people.