Three hundred and sixty four days a year I am a proud New Urbanist and apostle of the Strong Towns movement. I love talking about the value of mixed-use, traditional neighborhoods. When friends are over for dinner, I often find myself taking my copy of Suburban Nation off the shelf much like an evangelist spreading the gospel. Yet despite all of this, despite knowing better, there is one day, the three hundred and sixty fifth day of the year that I can’t help but feel guilty that my kids don’t live in a suburban subdivision. That day is Halloween. Mature father that I am, I am not too removed from my own childhood to remember that on Halloween night magic happens in these cul-de-sacs. That network of normally private houses becomes a destination in itself – destinations of mystery, hope, promise, and best of all, candy! For kids running around at night, knocking on doors, it’s best if the houses providing candy are single use, fine grained and the streets are empty of traffic. To this end, suburban subdivisions and trick-or-treating are the perfect combination.
This month, the Golbabai family made a pretty big move from Austin to College Station, Texas where I recently began a new job. The difference between the two places is perhaps best expressed in colors; we traded the politically blue city of Austin for a deep shade of red in College Station, and the burnt-orange of Texas Longhorns for the maroon of the A&M Aggies. But if those changes weren’t dramatic enough, Paula and I decided to take it a step further and trade our very urban, central city lifestyle for rural living as well (What can I say? I’m a Wendell Berry fan and the beauty of renting for a year is the ability to give something a try without the commitment anyway!). Having been in our new place for a few weeks now, I have been forced to ask myself some questions about walkability. Namely, when we use that term:
1) What exactly are we walking to?
2) Who is doing the walking?
3) How safe is that path?
Let me explain.
The picture above is our old neighborhood in central Austin. The walk score is 76. A very short stretch of the legs will get you to Paula’s favorite coffee shop (another is opening this Fall), two neighborhood bars, a grocery store, a variety of dining options, and access to the bus rapid transit stop. A slightly further walk brings into this picture a neighborhood park, the local library, my old boxing gym, and still more dining options. Downtown Austin and the University of Texas are an easy commute by bike or bus. As a young married couple, it is no wonder that Paula and I felt like we hit the jackpot with this location.
Four years and two kids later, our view of the neighborhood has changed. Things that we never cared about suddenly came to our notice. Why was the park on the other side of the arterial? Why weren’t there sidewalks? Why did traffic go so fast on our street? As ideal as the place was for Paula and I alone, we had to admit that it wasn’t our ideal for the kids. There was no way they could grow up in this neighborhood roaming the streets carefree on their bikes. Sure it’s living the dream to always be within a five minute walk of some pretty exceptional taco places, but for a young kid, that could not be any less exciting or cool.
Now consider this picture of our new place in College Station. We are living on a dirt road in one of six little cottages. The enormous piece of land the cottages sit on is part dedicated nature reserve and part master plan community just now in the beginning stages of construction. With none of that development here yet, the place is pretty quiet and empty and, from a young adult perspective anyway, extremely unremarkable. Forget the coffee shops and tacos, going to town is a good 20 minute drive and we had to get a PO box because the mail doesn’t deliver out here. And look at that walk score – 0. We went from a 76 to a big zero.
But our kids couldn’t care less about the downgrade. In fact, if they were in charge of this post they might call the change the biggest upgrade of their short lives to date. There are walking/biking trails, a lake, chickens, a horse, a rope swing, construction equipment, rabbits, road runners and enough lizards and creepy-crawly things to gladden the heart of any almost-three-year-old boy, all within walking distance of our house. The dirt road slows the few cars down as no speed limit sign ever could and makes the street safe for a kid on a bike. At night, the stars come out in overwhelming numbers and the moon is sometimes so bright that it actually casts a shadow on the ground (this city boy had heard the expression “by the light of the moon” in poems and songs but I was pretty amazed to find that it actually means something). Sure none of these things are going to show up on a walk score for adults, but the child explorer loves this place for the same reason Paula and I first loved our other house in Austin – walkability. Walkability is what it always comes down to, it’s just that the things worth walking to change depending on who you ask.
Returning to my one night of suburban subdivision guilt then, I see that in appreciating this built environment on Halloween night, I am still holding to my principles. Walkability is not so much dependent on a mix of uses but rather simply having desired destinations and a convenient and safe path to get there. This principle holds true whether those destinations are houses with Halloween candy in a subdivision, coffee shops in an urban area, or nature in a rural area. As for us, a month into this new life experiment, Paula and I are perplexed as to where we will end up going from here. Like the subdivision on Halloween night or a rural exploration of nature, we love seeing the kids able to roam free and enjoying the destinations that make childhood special. At the same time, as parents it would be nice if this didn’t come with the price tag of a long commute and a lack of convenient amenities for ourselves. Can good urbanism provide these answers and blend the best of urban, suburban, and rural walkability? Maybe. But until we figure it out, I am not going to apologize for heading to the nearest subdivision to at least do Halloween right!