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Choosing a Walkable Community

Posted by Ariel Kazunas at Oct 08, 2009 04:01 PM |

Media and outreach intern Ariel realizes it really is all about "location location location."

Choosing a Walkable Community

YES! Magazine media and outreach intern Ariel in a moving truck.

As a twenty-something who’s spent the last six years bouncing between dorm rooms, rental homes, and, now, a house that YES! Magazine provides for interns, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the question, “Where will I live next?” Besides adding an extra element of excitement to my life (I once fought through a nasty bout of mononucleosis while living on a mattress in a dining room…), answering that question has helped me think through my priorities in a way I might not have had the chance to otherwise.

I moved to Bainbridge Island to work for YES! Magazine from Portland, Oregon—a dreamily biker-friendly place where I relied entirely on a solid pair of wheels or my own two feet to get around. This wasn’t a problem, as my first four years there were spent attending a small college with a small campus, where my commutes were usually easier to complete without a vehicle (and I can’t deny the feeling of satisfaction I got when coasting down the bike lane past lines of rush-hour traffic… ).

The smaller radius I inhabited also came with an enhanced sense of community, though I did quickly come to realize that community’s limitations. Namely, that while my school filled in some gaps by providing eateries, ATMs, a health center, and a mail room, the area around the campus didn’t have much more than one specialty grocer, a gas station, and a coffee shop. Things just didn’t feel complete.

And as I watched school staff members, friends, and neighbors make cross-town treks to find other businesses, farmers’ markets, service providers, and the like, I came to understand there was a larger problem affecting not just my area, but most cities in general: even forwards-thinking ones, like Portland, are still completely vehicle-centric. They're decentralized in a way that often encourages the plague of urban sprawl, but since it’s a malaise we’re all so accustomed to, we hardly think twice about driving twenty minutes to run a simple errand.

I certainly didn’t—at least not until I got a taste of how easy it is to live otherwise. Which is why, when I graduated and started the search for my next new home, I consciously decided that I had very specific requirements for whatever neighborhood became mine. It had to have grocers, farmers’ markets, banks, hardware stores, parks, schools, doctors, bike routes, post-offices, restaurants and cafes, retail stores, bus lines, community spaces… in short, it needed all the things I would need on a daily basis, and it needed them within range of my bike.

Walkable Neighborhood

Street scene in Florence, where many roads are closed off to car traffic, creating spaces for people to walk, bike, and meet.

Of course, price was a consideration, too, and it played a determining factor in which house I settled on. But affordability, as a concept writ large, was already embedded in every item on my neighborhood “must have” list; affordability was, in fact, why I’d come up with that list in the first place. Commuting to work, shopping for household goods, and running daily errands by bike or foot meant eliminating the need to buy, maintain, or put gas in a car. It meant I wouldn’t need to budget time for a rush-hour slog, and I certainly wouldn’t need to budget money for a gym membership with all the physical activity my human-powered days would provide.

It also meant I wouldn’t be handed a bill further down the road in the currency of climate disaster. If the calories in my dinner provided the fuel to get me through the day, and the ingredients (gathered by bike or foot) in that dinner came largely from the local farmers’ market or organically-oriented neighborhood grocery, then I was one step closer living in a more sustainable way.

The best part came when I finally settled on a new home and discovered a happy surprise: many of my neighbors shared my notion of what makes a good neighborhood, and they, too, appreciated the value of one which enforced, to a large degree, a healthier, planet-happier lifestyle. They didn’t all arrive looking for that; many had discovered it upon move-in and realized they couldn’t imagine giving it up.

It was an amazing way to see how easy fostering such a lifestyle can be, simply by starting with simple choices and letting the ripple effect take over. It takes active choosing, yes, and there’s still an incredible distance to go before we’ve switched completely away from the damaging routines to which we’ve all grown so inured. But the starting line has been drawn, and I’m feeling strong from all my biking to start the race!

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