This week I am attending the National Main Streets conference in New Orleans. By the time I get back to Shreveport I’ll have amassed a mountain of great experiences that will need retelling. Since these things bore most of my loved ones to tears, you’ll get to read about it on this blog.
Yesterday after a day full of chicken soup for the downtown developers soul, our experience was culminated by a political rally style plenary complete with stencil style signs representing all the states in attendance who have cities in the Main Street Program. The planners brought out all the big guns on this first day ending with key note speaker Jeff Speck, a city planner by trade who literally wrote the book on the who, how and why of walkable cities. No really, his book “Walkable City, how downtown can save America one step at a time” is now at the top of my must read list. That said, he is a very engaging presence who really makes the case better than anyone I’ve heard for why we should be sustainable, and why we currently are not. And best of all, he doesn’t fill his time on the stage like some tail-gate preacher who just drank an entire pitcher of LEED Kool-Aid. Rather, he breaks his argument down into three major points, each of which I’ll be dedicating a blog to over the next few weeks:
1) a reason to walk
2) a safe place to walk
3) a comfortable place to walk
Lets start with a reason to walk. Speck explains that in the twilight of the 20th century our cities were built around the pedestrian. A car was most times an odd commodity. Since that time our wants and needs as a society have turned a complete 360. Starting with the baby boomers and continuing with the generation x’ers, the need and love for cars was insatiable. During this time clover leaf interchanges and suburban sprawl became the norm. This resulted in multiple generations of Americans dependent on paved road to the door of everywhere no matter how long the drive(more on this in part 2). Then come the millennials, or for you google and hyperlink clicking challenged folks out there anyone born from 1977 – the early 2000’s. Jeff deduces that this generation grows up in suburbia watching shows like Friends, Sienfield, and other urban set shows. While the generations before them were sitting in suburbs watching shows about other suburbs like the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family. While I can neither confirm nor deny the logic behind his theory, it is completely evident that the love for soccer mom suburban with factory 20″ chrome and a mcmansion in that trendy new development just far enough out of town to give you time to listen to your the latest artist from the Voice is finally after a half century taking a back seat to living a more sustainable existence.
Millenials simply are more concerned with taking the time spent in the HOV lane and the money spent on gas and a fake house and spending both on things that enrich their lives. Jeff found that 60% of college graduates prefer living in urban areas. This need for sustainability is compounded by the alarming rate at which our life expectancies as Americans are beginning to drop. For the first time children being born today are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. Granted the heavy dependence of the U.S. on a diet of corn syrup based products is not helping. That said, the biggest threat to our health is the absence of exercise. In Jeff’s research he found that in highly walkable city’s the rate of overweight individuals was 35% and in low walkable city’s that rate soared to 65%.
While there are many other reasons to walk these are the high points of the talk, and quite honestly I would like to save some suspense for the book which I know you’ll want to read. Tune back in next time on the same bat time and same bat channel for why a safe place to walk is so important and more than likely a few humorous examples of why so many city’s currently fail to hit the mark.
credit: the image used is from Jeff Speck’s presentation