I grew up in a quiet suburb and walked or rode my bike the half-mile to school most days (thanks Mom and Dad). I also had free reign of an eight-square-block kingdom on my bike. When I was a little older, I’d ride further to our classic American downtown and buy candy at the Little Popcorn Store. People walked the wide sidewalks to shop while cars drove cautiously along the (faux) brick streets.
Several rings of neighborhoods surrounded the downtown. The first was a grid with houses built in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Another with ranch and split-level houses of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Then the winding cul-de-sac subdivisions of the 80s, and 90s.
I watched as cookie-cutter McMansions replaced the last farm fields and fruit stands.
As a teenager, I drove myself the five miles to my high school. My first apartment was walking distance from an outdoor shopping mall with a Starbucks. A ten minute walk through parking lots, dodging stressed out Venti-sipping SUV drivers, and I could sit outside in the square with my coffee and laptop. While running errands, I found myself driving between strip malls just blocks apart. I’d circle for parking, buckle and un-buckle, load and un-load. Was this supposed to be normal?
Was this supposed to be normal?
For two years I lived downtown Chicago and could walk almost everywhere I needed to go. Then I moved a few miles up the lake and used the bus and the train. In 2011, I began traveling to Denmark for work. There I discovered they even design rural towns for walking and biking. That’s just the way life is there.
When I moved to Connecticut in 2013, I looked for a walkable city within a half hour of my office. Hartford had a small airport, Brainard, and I planned to learn to fly. It didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t Chicago. “Hartford Has It,” alright, as the slogan goes. Empty buildings, wide streets, fast cars, and parking lots everywhere. Visible markers of failed mid-century “urban renewal” projects.
The highway commute to a suburban office park was exhausting. People drove while texting and weaving — with total disregard for others’ lives. I could walk to downtown bars but found them lackluster. The West Hartford scene was livelier, but felt superficial, and required a drive. So, I poured myself into flight lessons and traveled to Chicago whenever I could. Living in Hartford was like an extended business trip — I just slept there during the week.
But things began to change when I chose to walk anyway. Here’s why I do it:
- Walking is free exercise. It takes me about 25 minutes door-to-door to walk downtown to a class or restaurant. The same trip by car during rush hour is 15 minutes in stop-and-go traffic. I circle once or twice for parking, only to settle on a garage where I have to pay. When I walk, I arrive energized, relaxed and inspired.
- Walking connects me with my surroundings. One can’t possibly notice the many small details of buildings and lots while driving.
- Walking changes your perspective. You start to see where the environment is built for people, and where it’s built for cars. You begin to tell the difference between safe and unsafe intersections. Cosy shops lining the street become more inviting. Set-back strip malls become alien and hostile.
- Walking connects me to my neighbors. It seems basic, but most people say “hi” when passing on the sidewalk. Maybe it’s like the Corvette wave. You’re in the club, you’re being human. Besides dog walkers, most people I see along my route live in the McKinney Men’s Shelter or The Open Hearth, a transitional men’s shelter. It’s eye-opening and humbling to see these men with much different fortunes than mine, face-to-face on the street.
- Walking inspires curiosity. Who built that building? What was it like then? Who uses it now? Wouldn’t it be cool to have a coffee shop on that corner?
- Walking lets me see the future. Since I walk the same route every day, I’ve gotten to see the blighted Capewell factory transform before my very eyes, and a the new downtown UConn campus emerge from the ruins of the Hartford Times. Had I only drove past, I’d have missed their slow markers of progress. With time to study other lots and properties along my route, I imagine what could be.
Choosing to walk led me to get involved with highway projects and Complete Streets policy in Hartford. Those small steps helped me find a few others who also wanted change. Together my newfound friends and I reclaim our home, like blades of grass growing defiantly in the sidewalk cracks.