Friday, July 10, 2009

Rural and Urban: Walkability matters

From the bustling streets of Bogota to the desert reaches of Central Valley farms people are people. And according to urbanist Enrique Peñalosa people need a few basic things to be happy...
  • To walk
  • To be around people
  • To play
  • To do these things without being afraid that the you are going to be hit by a car

But the places we live in rarely meet these basic needs....

When I heard Peñalosa speak last week at SPURs new digs, I couldn't help but think of my runs through Golden Gate Park. When I make it out during the week I dodge cars and tense up as I approach cross walks, but during the weekend when I reach JFK street that is completely closed to car traffic I feel this joy and relaxation come over me every time, it doesn't get old. I could walk up and down that stretch of carlessness all day and watch people: kids learning how to ride bikes, roller skaters dancing, people walking slowly back from a morning marathon run, it never gets old.

Peñalosa inspired crowds of fellow urbanists last week—in celebration of the new Great Streets initiative in SF--he talked about the way our streets and cities are built in terms of emotions and values. He spoke of how "a good city creates equality" this was at the root of his controversial turn as the Mayor of Bogota. He was almost impeached for kicking cars off the sidewalks and reclaiming them for pedestrians.

He created one of the most extensive bike network in the world connecting the cities poorest areas with public services like libraries and swimming pools and providing safe places for all of Bogota's residents rich, poor, children, and even the handicapped to get out of their cars and reclaim public spaces.

He created one of the most innovative transit systems in the world a Bus Rapid Transit system (see it in action on a NYT video here) in which buses get a dedicated lane and have improved boarding and payment systems to make BRT a faster, cheaper form of public transit than rail.

Peñalosa challenged all of us to again "think in utopias" to reclaim our streets. Right now, in San Francisco, it's hard to get around whether you're in a car, on a bike or a bus, or walking the streets. We must begin to dream of what our city will look like we begin to value people over cars.

And it's not just our cities--our rural areas are suffering even more from this same lack of safe, pedestrian space. A piece on NPR's Kitchen Sisters this week snapped me out of my urban tunnel vision. The Breadbasket Blues was billed as a piece looking at the effects of drought (both literal and economic) in the Central Valley -- a hot topic at my work these days...but instead, the story turned out to be remarkably parallel to the themes in Peñalosa's talk about cities--there aren't safe places to walk in the Central Valley because there aren't sidewalks, there aren't any public spaces for the community to gather. (aside from public space & walkability this story shines an important spotlight on the food desert and it's health impacts in our nation's breadbasket, a don't miss piece)

Urban or rural, we must begin to reclaim our communities, nurture them and make them livable again. I think Peñalosa pointed out a good first step: think in utopias. On that note, what does your ideal community look like?

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