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From the Daily Durning comes an interesting article from governing.com on the importance of sidewalks to the liveliness of cities and places. Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities established the concept that holistic communities are based upon the opportunity to have face to face contacts with neighbours. Jane wrote: “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
Sociologist Mark Granovetter reinforced this view in the 1980’s in an academic review that found the “most successful communities were built on what he called “weak ties,” informal contacts among casual acquaintances who stop on the street to share news, gossip or simple good wishes. A robust array of weak ties gives city dwellers access to jobs, child care and practical advice, and it enhances their overall sense of well-being.”
Of course it makes sense that in order to have contact on the sidewalk you need sidewalks and spaces along sidewalks for people to gather. The City of Vancouver has the blooming boulevards program which allows home owners to garden the city boulevards on either side of the sidewalk in front of their residence. Windsor Street in East Vancouver was the demonstration street for blooming boulevards, which created gardened spaces and meeting points for the residents along this street.
Walk Score is now popular in assessing how walkable a place is and used by people buying in the real estate market. There is a new book out by Philip Langdon titled “Within Walking Distance” examining why some cities seems to do better with walkability than others. Langdon talks about Brattleboro Vermont, a town that is constrained by geography to a small size but has embraced walkability in its downtown which is also bustling with businesses. It’s the town site located between a river and steep hills that has meant the town could not sprawl outward, and meant that 90 per cent of locals live within a two-mile walking distance of downtown. That walkable distance also has meant that townspeople proudly support local businesses on their main street and spurn more suburban shopping centres.
Langdon also examines other American towns and their walkability. He surmises that while history and geography matter for walkable places, neighbourhood character, creativity and “audacity” are important too. Audacity is described as the neighbourhood’s determination in the face of “existing regulation and bureaucratic inertia”.
Walkability, its quality and its acceptance is still something best measured by local residents in the comfort and convenience of accessing schools, shops and services by foot, and still remains an area that requires more study.