‘Gimme Shelter’ with Daniel Gehman: Walkability

There is a great deal of discussion to be heard these days about “walkability” and “walkable neighborhoods.” Great! It’s a beneficial and practical idea to consider. But, like “sustainability,” everyone who uses the word probably has a nuanced meaning for it. What makes a neighborhood “walkable?” Is it just about destination? Or infrastructure? Or flattering urban appointments?

I think maybe one of the most important elements of walkability is the attitude of the walker. Seriously. When I am working in our Irvine office in California, I have for a decade moaned that “there’s no place to walk to for lunch.” If you break down that sentence, there are several terms that demand clarification, starting with “no place.” For me, that really has meant “no place I consider acceptable as an eating establishment.” There’s a café in the office building next door (less than 5 minutes away) that I find bland and overpriced. There’s a juice bar in the Equinox gym on the other side of our complex (about 5 minutes away) with high prices and limited choice, and a trendy sit-down restaurant and bar in essentially the same building, but I consider it a “special occasion” place. Across the street and up the block a bit is a chain taco place, and the answer there is just no.

But a little further, and in the opposite direction, there’s a little commercial center with a sub sandwich shop, a liquor store, a Starbucks, a sushi restaurant, a fish taco place, a gyro place, a pizza place, and, my usual choice, a chicken/beef/rice bowl place. Do you know how many times I’ve walked over there to pick up takeout? I’m so ashamed of the answer I’m not even going to share it with you, but it rhymes with “hero.”

So today, it’s a new year, and on my first non-brown-bag lunchtime, I resolved to WALK to the corner to get some grub. It was fun! Aside from the fact that there is no public sidewalk access to my building (I’m not making this up—you can literally enter only from a parking lot), the rest of the journey is pretty civil, including one ginormous (though nicely signaled) intersection. There are gentle slopes that some might even consider hills, but not enough to even cause one to break a sweat. Note I never encountered a bench or even a street tree—but the paved surface was clean, even and pretty comfortable. Walking is a really wonderful way to engage most of one’s senses—sight, sound, smell, even possibly touch as various sidewalk irregularities are felt through the soles of one’s shoes—and a revitalizing break from the cubic cell, monitor and landline.

The journey took eight minutes, including waiting for two light changes. Eight! I’ve spent over ten years DRIVING AN EIGHT-MINUTE WALK! To summarize, I left my office, walked to the restaurant, ordered and picked up my food, and strolled back all in about 25 minutes, leaving me a pleasant half hour to enjoy social time in our break room with some colleagues.

I’m still kind of stunned, which is why I had to write about it. Walkability, I’m persuaded, now more than ever resides largely in the mind of the walker. An abundance of options and attractions is at some level just gilding the lily. Choice doesn’t make a neighborhood walkable; attitude does. My universe has just cracked open a little bit more.

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