By Barry Watkins
My fellow Brevardians, we have been building car-dominated sprawl for about 70 years now, and we can look around us and see the results. Happy with how that’s going so far? Nah, me neither. Fortunately, there is a better way…
We build everything for the car! A few issues with that. Among other things, 1) It’s extremely unsafe for walking, 2) It’s not good for our health, 3) It’s bad for the environment, 4) it’s not economically sustainable, and 5) last but not least – Let’s admit it, it’s really ugly!
Oh, I don’t know…maybe START BUILDING THINGS FOR PEOPLE?! We CAN build things so that the car doesn’t dominate. We CAN build things so it’s safe and practical for people who choose to walk, bike, or use transit. We can and we must make some changes. Our environment depends on it, our children’s safety depends on it, the future of our local economy depends on it. Building walkable communities is shown to positively effect our physical health, and even our mental and spiritual health. For these reasons and many more, building for people instead of cars just makes sense.
So, how do we do it?
Let’s break this thing down a little. The changes that need to be made can be summed up in one main thought: build walkable neighborhoods. Or, in the case of existing places: let places evolve as part of a walkable neighborhood. Walkable neighborhoods are complete, compact, and connected. The walkable neighborhood unit is a concept that’s been around for thousands of years. Whole cities, back in the days before cars, were built as walkable units. In ancient times, the walkable city was very compact and contained within a wall. Today we don’t necessarily need to build walls around our cities or even around our neighborhoods, but many of our neighborhoods could certainly be built as complete, compact, well-connected, walkable units.
Walkable neighborhoods are complete. We can drastically reduce the need to use the car for our daily tasks if we can configure our neighborhoods as complete, walkable places. What I mean by complete is to have most of our daily tasks possible within an easy walk. Sprawl neighborhoods are built as single-use pods. We have built many places where the houses just go on for miles with absolutely no commercial within an easy walk for the people who live there. A complete neighborhood is one where residential, shopping, workplace, entertainment, schools, and outdoor recreation, are all within an easy walk of each other. Say, a 5-10 minute walk, which is about 1/4-1/2 mile.
Walkable neighborhoods are compact. If we want a neighborhood to be walkable we want to build things a little closer together instead of the way things are built in Sprawlville (any car-dominated place). We also want our neighborhoods to be attractive places. Let’s build with some diversity in each neighborhood. That’s how to make it walkable and attractive. Diversity is good. Around the perimeter of the neighborhood have some large lot single-family homes and then as you get closer to the center go ahead and build up a little. Make a neighborhood center that will have some multi-story buildings with retail at the ground level, and perhaps some offices or apartments above. Around the center do some small lot homes and town houses. When we build things this way we help more people to live nearest to the center where most of the activity is going to occur. How compact should we build? A good guide is to shoot for a minimum average density of about 7 units/net acre (not including preserved open space) instead of the normal sprawl density of around 4 units/net acre. The higher density will support some neighborhood commercial as well as supporting a local bus stop. Building compact neighborhoods helps our environment because when we use our land a little more efficiently it frees up outlying areas to remain wilderness and allows us to live in harmony with nature.
Walkable neighborhoods are connected. This is what most people first think of when we talk about making walkable places. The walking connections between neighborhood residences and nearby commercial destinations and schools are very important. If we make the connections direct, safe, comfortable, and interesting then walking becomes a valid means of transportation. We need to make blocks small, provide enough sidewalks with shade. We need good short and safe crossings at the streets, and we need to make sure car speeds are slow enough. This all adds up to a great walking experience for all. When all of these factors are in place that also helps to make bicycling and transit to become practical transportation options as well.
How does all this sound so far? Pretty much everyone that we talk to about these things agrees with the common-sense concepts we are presenting here. Will you join with us and help to move our area to a more walkable future? Stay tuned to this blog for more information, and we will keep you abreast of our progress! One of the ways Walkable Brevard is helping to improve walkability in our area is to encourage our county and city governments to adopt the SmartCode. The SmartCode is a model land development code designed to create the kind of walkable communities described in the article above. Here’s an article about the SmartCode and why we need it here in Brevard: Why We Desperately Need The SmartCode!