I’m reading Philip Langdon’s new book, Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All and I’m thinking about neighborhoods. In the back of my mind is the song “Walking in LA” by Missing Persons.
But first, I used to go to Kemah, TX to give workshops on grant writing. I’d get dropped off at the hotel and walk to a variety of restaurants and shops before and after my trainings. At first blush, I thought it was charming, but soon I realized that everything I experienced was owned and operated by the same company. It dawned on me that I was actually staying in an all-inclusive resort community. No matter where I went, I was benefitting the same proprietor. It’s a clever approach, but realizing this took the shine off the experience. We can do better.
Los Angeles has been trying a number of mixed-use experiments to create places where people can live, work and play without needing a personal vehicle. Some may be the same all-inclusive experiences marketed under the guise of senior or retirement living or mixed-use urban living. I’m not knocking it. It could be a great solution to avoid community isolation. Yet, Langdon highlights ways to cultivate a local and unique culture through careful application of targeted planning principles and nurturing local destinations that foster relationship. Langdon’s case studies bring forth some ideas that resonate for me as I think about what I look for in my ultimate community:
The distance v. time: When I think about how to get everything done in only 24 hours each day, I have to think about how many tasks can I accomplish along the way. Langdon talks about the optimal length of a block to foster differentiated pathways, more corners to optimize retail access, and open space to punctuate places for rest and play.
The strip mall near me used to have everything I needed. I’d start at the post office, run by the dry cleaner, buy needed gifts, repair jewelry, visit the bank, bakery and produce markets… grab a coffee and sit under a tree at a little table surrounded by flowers to enjoy it with a good book – all in one block.
Having a car would have been inconvenient, but businesses have moved out, and new ones have come in, and I don’t go to that strip mall much anymore because it no longer has what I need. Now I get in my car and drive to get the same tasks accomplished. If I was going to walk to my chores, I’d have to think about what I’m dropping off and collecting along the way, how far I’m going to carry these items, and whether I can make all my stops in the time I have. Proximity to variety makes a big difference.
The sensory walking experience: I have to think about which streets I’m walking along at what hour of the day or night. I live in a safe part of town, but I still wouldn’t walk down a number of streets in my area at night alone. Some I wouldn’t use during the day either. I enjoy tree-lined, shaded streets, colorful and textural landscaping, and broad sidewalks where people can walk two or three across. I like curved walkways and curb cuts when I have a cart on wheels to tote. I appreciate sidewalks in good repair and keeping electrical out of the middle of the sidewalk. I want to look at buildings that are cared for and businesses that are thriving. I like to see pocket parks and vertical or slightly hidden gardens. I want to see something different depending on the direction I’m walking down that side of the street.
Variety is interesting. I want to see people going about their business and see them smiling. When I’m out walking and I see others doing the same, I feel like I’m a part of something, doing what I should be doing. I like different pathways to get where I’m going, so short blocks and cuts through parks are fun. I want not just one destination, but lots of them to choose from.
Characteristics of the destination: I’ll walk further if my destination allows me to sit outside and in the shade. I like to get a bit of work done, so those places where I can recharge my phone or laptop become most desirable. I like places where we can pull up another chair or I bump into someone I know, order when hungry and let conversations meander. In this informal setting I meet new people. As a result, I’ll linger, order another drink or snack, and feel like I’m in the community, making new friends. The time flies by.
Coffee houses figured this out and provide outlets and free WiFi. What about parks and restaurants? We can create livable cities. We have. There are pockets of working, walkable neighborhoods scattered across the landscape. We need more and we need them disbursed across the county, not just in the easy places.
We can look to the old Main Streets. We can keep local character and build on it. If you had no limits to your imagination, how could you re-imagine a block in LA? Please join the conversation by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving your thoughts here.
Thank you to those whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above:
Philip Langdon, author
Dick Jackson, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles