I recently attended a conference in Seattle for promoting physical activity in urban environments. Alliances between the public health and planning communities are moving out of academia and are being forged on the ground. And it was encouraging to see that what we’re trying to do in my small town in Washington with respect to walkability is what you’re supposed to be doing. 

But walkability by itself is a tough sell. First, many people in suburbs like ours don’t have the time to walk. Suburban dwellers choose to live far from the city, which makes for long commutes that reduce exercise time [another (pdfs)], Second, not everyone cares about walkability or other single-issue items. So, we’re talking about the walkability amenity as one component of a larger small-town, outdoor-recreation, and natural-environment quality-of -life ethic. This softens the impact of rapid change, allows people to see how placemaking (making spaces more attractive and compatible for human uses) benefits them, and it takes away the fear that this is some big-city scheme brought out to the country.

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  • Another example of a tough sell: stopping sprawl. We know that wealthy societies sprawl more [pdf, pg 8] than poor societies–it’s what they do. We enable sprawl by considering land as a commodity that can be bought and sold, rather than as a place that delivers ecosystem services ( e.g. stormwater reduction, air pollution filtration, heat island mitigation, etc)[also 1, 2, 3]. It’s easy enough for property-rights proponents to argue that market forces drive big-lot subdivisions and should drive choices. Well, market forces make traffic congestion too, but never mind that. Ecosystem services—by not being counted in our economics—can’t even enter into the lot-size argument.

    But out here in Buckley, people like their large lots—it’s why they live here in the first place; you won’t catch exurbanites dreaming of dense neighborhoods close to transit. But interestingly, folks living on big lots can tell you why small lots have positive qualities: commuters to downtown don’t have three hours a week to mow, weeding a half-acre garden isn’t realistic for a busy household or for seniors, houses are less expensive, etc. Our new senior housing project—to be completed in 2007will be cottage-style, a good example.

    So we’ve tried to emphasize the benefits while gently pointing out no one is asking current residents to move to smaller lots—there are still larger lots in town. When we did zoning changes in Buckley last year, people seemed to respond to the idea that small lots are to diversify our economic base and to provide affordable and senior housing (that is: housing for mom or dad), not to repudiate their life choices.

    I’m finding that we stop making unhealthy communities the same way we stop sprawl: not by attacking it directly but by multiple approaches, the most important of which is pointing out sprawl is economically unfeasible to continue. Businesses like walkable neighborhoods because loyal, local customers have something to walk to. Smaller lots—a component of walkable neighborhoods—allow seniors to age in place and create opportunities for young couples to build a family. Cities (especially in Washington where you can’t even tax to keep up with inflation) can deliver services more efficiently when they are compact. Lastly, making your city attractive to a wider range of society allows you to avoid placing all your economic eggs in one basket.

    And it may make your city healthier as well (.pdf).