25 August 2009

Walkable Neighborhoods 1

The automobile is perhaps mankind’s greatest invention. The personal computer is a nice invention but let’s face it, modern man can live without it. Most humans across the world still don’t have a personal computer. I can design any building with a pencil, paper and an eraser – it just might take me a bit longer than if I did it on a computer. But, in the metro area I live in, I can not go to work without a car. The electric light bulb is a great invention but with out it we might still have bigger windows, shorter working hours and beautiful oil lamps. Just think how technologically advanced candles could be if the light bulb was never invented or what other inventions we would use for artificial light.

Savannah, Georgia near Jones Street - August 2009

The automobile, for many people, has destroyed their quality of life. A few years back I worked in an office building with an underground parking lot. I didn’t think much more of it than it was a place to park my car. It was also nice because my car wouldn’t get snow on it in the winter. When the outside temperature fell below zero degrees (Fahrenheit) it was nice to be sheltered on my way to the elevator and to the office. In a discussion I had with a coworker I discovered he had an attached garage with his suburban house. It was possible for him to never go “outside” Monday through Friday; whether the weather was nice or bad. He, as well as the majority of my coworkers, lived similarly in suburban homes with attached garages in subdivisions with no sidewalks. They had no stores to walk to, no entertainment to walk to and their single entrance subdivisions (ironically called “communities”) were filled with cul-de-sacs. A trained rat knows that it should avoid a path full of dead ends. In Wisconsin, we have more good weather days than bad ones so it is usually nice to be exposed to the external elements. It is a known fact that exposure to the sun is required for human health yet so many of these people unintentionally avoid it.

The automobile has contributed to the freedom of the individual human to freely roam the world. And we can roam the world only encumbered by huge bodies of water, impassable mountains, other extreme geological features, and extreme weather conditions. This freedom is one of the great advantages to driving a car. The unfortunate downside to driving a car is the unsocial aspect it has. We rarely meet the other people we see driving. We often get upset at them for occasionally good reasons but mostly just because we don’t like their “driving style”. Old movies often show the social aspects of taking the train, bus or boat; even romanticizing the dramatic scenes. It’s true, in generations previous to us, many people met their spouses on the bus, did business networking on the train, etc. For some of us lucky enough to have lived in very walkable neighborhoods we have experienced the great social aspect of walking to the store. It can be extremely enjoyable to see and “stop for a moment” to chat. For me it became a way to meet my neighbors when you both discover you’re going to the same store together. It was also faster to walk than drive to some of neighborhood stores. It actually took more time to get into the car, unpark it, drive, find a parking space, get out and walk to the store and of course repeat again for the way home.

The automobile is also an incredible personal statement. We can all agree that a person that drives a small sporty British roadster with a four cylinder engine has a vastly different personality than someone that chooses to drive a huge pick-up truck with oversize tires, V-8 (or V-10) engine, bull bar and has the mufflers removed. I believe that I have placed enough adjectives there for your imagination to produce the different images. The majority of us agree that the image of the person that drives the little roadster is six foot tall and the image of the monster truck driver is five and a half feet tall (and they are both presumed to be male and have very different I.Q. levels). I am guilty, I love cars. I have several of them, each one very different from the other. One makes an eighteen inch snow fall look like child’s play. Another is so incredibly beautiful that it was one of the most sought after cars in its day and is now a timeless classic. Yet another is low to the ground, fun to drive and sounds incredible with its engine neatly tucked behind the front seats and in front of the rear trunk; its sound sneaking through a vent near my left ear – surprisingly it returns 35 miles to the gallon. But I will leave all my cars parked whenever I can walk to my destination because I love the exposure to the weather, the chance opportunity of a surprise conversation with someone, and the opportunity to see or learn something new.

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