Living in a walkable community has become a privilege afforded to very few people — mostly the wealthy. This reality is unfortunate; as someone who has lived in such a neighborhood in Northwest Washington the last 15 years, I can attest that the benefits of such communities can be enormous — both personally and professionally.
For starters, doctors have come to realize that there are significant health benefits from living in a place that forces a person to walk to conduct most daily transactions. While regular exercise at a gym certainly improves a person’s health, regular low-impact exercise such as walking 30-60 minutes a day also confers important improvements in health and wellbeing.
Lawrence Frank, a professor at the University of British Columbia, found that men who live in cities where it was logistically impossible to go anywhere by walking outweigh men living in more urbanized environments by 10 pounds.
Another benefit from living in a walkable neighborhood is that it makes it more difficult for a person to become socially isolated. While those of us with aged parents rightly worry about their physical health, the increasing isolation that naturally develops among infirm people who live in communities where driving is the only way to travel can lead to a deterioration in mental health as well. And, of course, it’s not just the aged and infirm who receive benefits from copious social connections: social intercourse can improve the mental and physical health of everyone.
But while it may be true that daily walks improve health and mood, I value my walkable world because of the economic benefits it bestows. What I never grasped while living in smaller communities is that so much commerce transacts via personal relationships.
When a friend is looking to hire a new worker, the first thing he invariably does is to let his friends and colleagues know he is looking for someone and what sort of skills this person should have. More times than I can recall I’ve been asked for a recommendation when I happened to bump into a friend or acquaintance looking for a new employee.
The close interaction that people in walkable communities have with those who work in similar fields not only creates more opportunities but can also serve to make people more productive. Being in an environment that pushes people together when they have similar occupations can cross-fertilize their skills by introducing them to new ways of operating that haven’t yet become common in their disciplines.
In his book “Dream Hoarders,” Brookings economist (and my neighbor) Richard Reeves declares that what’s most objectionable about the current status of income inequality is that the rich not only earn more but they are able to create more opportunities both for themselves and their progeny. Not only is it difficult for middle-class families to live in neighborhoods such as ours but the local self-styled community activists go to great lengths to deter new development, improve mass transit or take any steps that would make where we live more affordable.
More and more suburbs are taking steps to create a walkable core, but more often than not this is also only affordable to the relatively well-off. It is wonderful that Americans have a wide variety of locales and neighborhoods to live in, but the benefits to living in dense urban neighborhoods are vastly understated, and unattainable to most.
Sensible urban policy should ameliorate both of these.