For millennia, cities were built with walking in mind. Then came the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, and everything changed. Not all at once, of course, but as the decades passed, we did less strolling around and mingling with neighbors and more rolling around encased in steel and glass. Our communities shape-shifted in response. Today, we build mostly for cars, not feet.
Car-centric communities bring with them lots of problems. Main street businesses suffer. Disadvantaged communities languish. The bonds between neighbors start to loosen and, as environments dominated by high-speed traffic take over, we have fewer places to gather safely. On the other hand, when neighborhoods are walkable, communities and the people in them thrive. The problem is that so many of our towns are not remotely pedestrian-friendly, and changing that can feel overwhelming.
The big shift away from walkability occurred after World War II when we threw out thousands of years of human wisdom and fundamentally changed how we build our towns. Suburbs sprang up (and spread out) in every direction, and locally owned shops on Main Street gave way to big box stores on the edge of town.
We can hardly put the automotive genie back in the bottle, but our communities can resurrect a walking lifestyle--and, more to the point, we must.
First and foremost, walkable streets are economically productive. Where walking is safe and easy, businesses usually thrive. In concentrated, walkable neighborhoods lined with shops and restaurants, passersby are far more likely to frequent multiple businesses than if they drive to a specific store in an auto-oriented area. When those businesses are locally owned (as they often are), economic gains stay in the community--and walkable neighborhoods demonstrate far greater tax revenue per square foot than any other type of development.
It just makes more sense to put dozens of destinations where they can be reached on foot quickly than to waste miles and miles of land on empty parking lots. Plus, paving and maintaining sidewalks is far less expensive than building streets for cars. It is not surprising that the U.S. is seeing a huge resurgence of interest in walkable communities. These are places designed to create...