The website Walk Score has released their 2011 list of the country’s most “walkable” cities, i.e. the places where it’s easiest to live without a car. The top of the list was pretty predictable, with cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston ranking highest, but I was surprised to see Minneapolis at #9, Omaha at #21, and Houston at #23.
I think this is good information to consider in light of our discussion about isolation and stay-at-home parents from last week. It’s hard to overstate the benefits to living in a walkable area, especially for someone who is outside the workforce. You save a ton of money on gas, and even more if you can get by with one car. You save money on groceries since walking to the store means you buy only what you need on a daily basis, rather than making huge once-a-week trips that are more likely to lead to waste. You get exercise and exposure to sunlight as a natural part of your daily routine. But, most importantly, it fosters a sense of community. You run into your neighbors multiple times per day, and there are more opportunities for interaction since you’re passing them in person rather than simply waving at them from the inside of a car.
When I had my first child, I lived in a downtown area where I could get pretty much anything I needed within a 10-block walk. We moved to a typical suburb when the baby was about a year old, and the difference was striking. I no longer walked anywhere, so I gained weight and had less energy. It took weeks to meet any of our neighbors, since it was hard to catch them in the few seconds between when they got out of their cars and when they closed their garage doors. When I lived downtown, I would take a moment to tend to my appearance since I knew I’d run into a bunch of neighbors as I went about my errands; here in the suburbs, I’d often go days without seeing anyone outside of my immediate family, so it became easy to fall into the habit of sloppy dress, which impacted my attitude and energy level. There are, of course, a lot of great things about suburban life, but the sprawling setup that requires a car to get anywhere is a big disadvantage that has a particularly large impact on stay-at-home parents.
There are some interesting movements underway to promote walkability in areas outside of expensive urban centers, but they’re often decidedly secular and aimed only at people with small families. I’d love to see more discussion of this in the Catholic world. Obviously none of us can just pick up and move to a more walking-friendly area tomorrow, but simply being aware of the problem could help families who are interested make changes over the long haul, and hopefully create demand for more affordable, walkable neighborhoods.
A crazy pipe dream I have is that there would one day be a movement for people to make special effort to live within walking distance of their church. Obviously not everyone would be able to do it, and it would take years to bear any fruit, but I think it would be nothing short of revolutionary if even 20 percent of Catholics lived within a mile of their parish church. It would foster a sense of community as neighbors ran into each other on the way to and from Mass; people who lived nearby would likely go to Mass and confession more often, and do more of their socializing at the church. Geographical proximity to one another and to our churches could be a huge strengthening force for the Body of Christ.
This is certainly not the most important issue in our culture right now, and is probably not even in the top 20. But I do think it’s something that we should all keep on our radar, because creating walkable communities could be a big boon for families, and even for the whole Church.