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Shifting paradigms — a place for walking

Picture this: you’re walking home from the bus at the end of a rainy day, looking at six lanes of moving traffic right next to your foot, and realizing that it might be the last thing you’ll do. The photo seems fuzzy — just like my future. A six-inch wet-pavement-planing from a Subaru would clarify the situation in ways I don’t even want to contemplate. I ponder this situation daily, and wonder what could happen here — either safety or death. And certainly this walk doesn’t compel admiration. It shouldn’t be this way. What does it take to create safe places for walking?

“Place” carries no one meaning. Space exists all around us: place is what we create in our heads and plant to the ground. Gardeners see place as potential for perennials, annuals, and vegetables. Architects envision built environments, replete with structures and landscape.

Place suggests possibility: what can this be? The eco-critic Timothy Morton observes that “place is a question.” Not only does “place” circumscribe certain boundaries within the minds of those who name it, but it also carries emotions, memories, and appeals to the senses. Factor in all the forces that impact a location — environmental, social, economic, and political — and place seems almost amorphous, an overlay of forces and nostalgia. Daniel Coleman calls for “emotional aptitude” when discussing place. All the intellectualization in the world cannot capture the challenges and factors that place-making requires — particularly for walkers and the vulnerable land on which they stride.

The sheer physicality of the players within a space — cars, people, animals, plants — bursts with energy and impact. The physical consequences range from joy and growth to destruction. How do you reconcile these safely?

Sidewalks, lighting, traffic signals, signage, and all the elements of a well-designed streetscape offer a good start. Take sidewalks for example. We need them, in every city, suburb, town, or dense dwelling area. Walkers must be separated from vehicles. One false step, and that’s the last step taken in front of an oncoming vehicle. It’s easy to find innumerable examples of streets without sidewalks, particularly in dispersed urban megalopolises. Lack of sidewalks underlies the inability of children to get to school safely, or retirees to get exercise, or people to walk to work or mass transit, or neighbors to exchange necessities, or wheelchairs to roll in peace. The vulnerable pedestrian doesn’t command much attention from a driver (particularly if both are texting).

I ponder the dilemma of safely resolving places for walking within the broader landscape, particularly given the six lanes of moving traffic on my daily walking commute. Despite numerous emails from the neighborhood to the Departments of Public Works and Planning, the case for this segment is continually “closed,” according to the City. It just isn’t a priority until somebody gets killed. Then maybe.

My neighbors and I need to take the city officials for a walk, this walk. Then something might happen. Experiential advocacy goes a long way in making a case for place. When the moving traffic becomes terrifyingly real, emotional intelligence kicks in.

Several days ago, my younger daughter sent me a photo of a mobile of the solar system that she is making for her classroom. Suddenly I saw a model for how people, autos, bicycles, and theĀ  natural environment could co-exist within their connected orbits, all within one “place.” It seems to have worked for our universe for millennia.

We need to advocate for places for walkers to connect safely. Take a local official for a walk — not only might it cause a change in creating a safe place for walking (and save a life), but who knows — maybe a new connection.

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