Where You Can Walk Could Save Your Life

According to Jeff Speck, a city planner and author of the book Walkable City, dependence on cars can spell big trouble during major emergencies. “Watch almost any disaster movie or news coverage of one to confirm that roads and highways quickly become parking lots in moments of crisis,” Speck wrote in an email. “We learned from both 9/11 and Sandy that walking (and biking) remain viable options in times of crisis. The challenge is to have a city where [walking and biking] can get you home.”

Speck argues that for a city to be truly resilient in the face of catastrophic events – whether natural or manmade (or in the case of global warming-fueled extreme weather, a bit of both) — walkability is a fundamental necessity.

In January of 2011, when massive floods overtook much of Brisbane, Australia, designer Dan Hill was forced to consider the importance of walkability in the face of such disaster. In his account of the floods – which is part Twitter recap, part photo journal, and part thought piece – Hill wrote:

“Today, certainly, I would have liked everyday needs to have been met locally (and actually everyday in the suburbs I feel that way). It would have been better to have been in a place with a walkscore of something approaching 100 (see redfin.com). But there is nothing around us, barely pavements, and now the connecting infrastructure of roads is so easily compromised.”

Hill describes a concept called “network redundancy,” which could be seen as a key element of any walkable city or town: having multiples of similar services within relatively short distance of each other.

“In Beirut, due to the variability of its fabric, everyday needs have to be met locally, as you’re never sure whether a road will be there or not. As a result, there is what you might call ‘network redundancy’ i.e. every few streets has grocers, bakers, coffee shop, ironmongers, tailors etc. etc.”

In other words, anything you need to survive or endure some trying times is right there within walking distance.

Contrast that, wrote Hill, to “the centralised [sic] and consolidated model of western cities, most obviously visible in the out-of-town mall accessed by car, with all the apparent economies of scale that entails. Yet the former model is actually more resilient, for sure.”

Alissa Walker, urbanism editor at Gizmodo and an avowed “walker” in pedestrian-unfriendly Los Angeles argues that, beyond the obvious advantages of a more pedestrian-scaled urban landscape in times of crisis, residents of walkable cities are actually better conditioned to deal with emergencies. “More than anything else,” said Walker, “walking connects you to your community in an important way.” In turn, “there’s more of a civic motivation to the population.”

In essence, Walker is saying that walkability creates a local culture more geared to community. And where more cohesive communities are in place — where people know their neighbors and are used to interacting and working together to solve local problems – getting through a crisis is much easier.

Photo: euno, Flickr


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