The novelty of walking to school

I walked to school every day of my life, from kindergarten through high school. It was only a quarter mile to my elementary school, and it was less than a mile to the high school. And every street had a sidewalk.

But that was 30 years ago. Now, such a simple part of life seems to be a thing of the past:

In 2009 only 13 percent of K-8th Grade students were reported as walking or biking to school. That’s a huge shift from 40 years earlier when that number was 48 percent. In 1969, 89 percent of kids who lived within a mile of school walked or rode their bikes; in 2009 that figure was down to 35 percent.

That’s from a story on the U.S. Department of Transportation blog, “Indiana Schools Take Strides Toward Safe Routes to School.” Although those statistics are bleak, the USDOT congratulated Indiana for doing a good job of meeting what the Federal Highway Administration calls the 5 E’s:

  1. Engineering – Creating roadway improvements near schools that reduce speeds and potential conflicts between motor vehicles and walking students and establishing safer crossings, walkways, and bikeways.
  2. Education – Teaching children important bicycling and walking safety skills and launching driver safety campaigns near schools.
  3. Enforcement – Partnering with local law enforcement to ensure traffic laws are obeyed in school zones and initiating community enforcement such as crossing guard programs.
  4. Encouragement – Using events and activities to promote walking and bicycling.
  5. Evaluation – Monitoring and documenting outcomes and trends to gauge success.

The first point, of course, mirrors the Complete Streets movement.

But despite the accolades, it’s doubtful an Indiana child walks or bikes to school, especially here in Fort Wayne, where the Walk Score is 39 out of a possible 100. A consistent policy of building simple physical features such as sidewalks and crossable streets would make getting around on foot a lot more feasible.

Making room for outdoor space in private urban developments

A recent Atlantic Cities piece written by Kaid Benfield, “What Developers Get Wrong About Smart Growth,” profiles cities that have made a commendable effort to include public green space in and around adjacent urban infill projects, presumably completed by private developers.

As mentioned in the article, typical infill projects exist on such tight sites that every square foot is maximized for enclosed living spaces. Exterior park-like retreats are rarely prioritized high enough to be included in the project.

First, I contend that we — as private owners/clients and design and construction professionals — need to broaden our definition of “mixed use” and include public and/or private outdoor spaces as one of the most critical program elements right from the earliest design stages. Humans possess a primal need to connect with nature, and any initiative to encourage citizens to relocate to downtown live/work spaces should strive to include access to nature or “green” space.

Secondly, we should ask how we can better use our public park properties to supplement our urban environments.

This is not conceptual! This article poses a tangible challenge to all who believe in and desire to advance market-driven urbanism.