June 06, 2011

Can We Live Local?

by: Ryan Glass


Today’s post is by Ryan Glass. I first met Ryan at a Places, Spaces and Faces Community Dinner. I subsequently ran into Ryan’s insightful and hilarious blog Relevant Wit through some mutual urbanist friends. When I saw Ryan at Lola’s on Roosevelt a while ago, I knew I had to hit him up for a guest post!

The Downtown Phoenix Public Market. Photo by Taz Loomans.

CenPho resident since 2002, Ryan Glass is an amateur urbanist, podcaster and contributing writer. For his more random thoughts, follow @RyanGPHX.

Not that long ago, I attended a speech given by noted urbanist Andres Duany. Having no previous notions of the speaker or his work, I went in as a blank slate and let him paint a masterpiece of information and opinion all over my cerebral cortex. Luckily my mind is sort of like a really old etch-a-sketch, so even after shaking it some of the lines remained. One of those lines, in particular, was that before the advent of an automobile-centric society in post-War America, almost everyone met their daily needs within walking distance of their home. Wow, this sounded like a great way to live, and as I left that day I wondered if it’s possible to live that way today. Can I meet all my daily needs so closely and easily? Can I Live Local?

Picture walking out your front door, being able to head down the street and get not only your morning coffee, but anything else you’d need for breakfast, dinner, a weekend picnic, and a park to have it in. Catch a movie, go a library, grab a bottle of wine on your way to a party, all without ever starting your car. Maybe I’m just hungry right now, but the concept of meeting my basic needs without expending petrol seems like a great one. Same thing with your social, spiritual, educational, and any other needs. In a city that’s known for it’s endless grid, sprawl, and single-story homes, we find ourselves on the doorstep of great change and great potential to reel it back in and create the type of vibrant, lived-in neighborhoods we envy, and all because of the Light Rail.

No, this isn’t another story about car-free/car-light living, I’m certain there are enough of those written already. What I’m talking about are the neighborhoods that allow a “living local” lifestyle to be possible.

Trains keep us around the house, not in the house:
How does something that was supposed to connect disparate parts of town, letting one live in Mesa and work in CenPho and go to school at ASU Main, end up creating neighborhoods that we don’t want to leave? Doesn’t that sound like the antithesis of making a good transportation system, if we’re encouraging people not to use it? Well, like the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and that first step is getting you to head towards the train instead of your car. In doing so, you’ll walk through one of the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) blocks surrounding each Light Rail station, and hopefully spot something that you’d overlooked going by it at 50 mph each day.

From the City of Phoenix’s Downtown Development Office, I spotted the following definition of our city’s Transit Oriented Development plans:

“TOD is a pattern of development characterized by a mix of uses surrounding a transit station where streets have a high level of connectivity, blocks are small, and buildings and uses cater to the pedestrian.”

image of Arlington, VA’s award-winning TOD

Fantastic, so there it is; a plan to encourage certain areas to “cater to the pedestrian”. Of course, just like every kid who planted a seed learns, if we just wait for the city’s plan to bloom, we’ll miss all the excitement of seeing things grow and watching our communities strengthen.

A quick word on walkability:
The classic concept of a TOD says that people will readily walk ¼ – ½ mile. Add in ubiquitous heat of Phoenix, and I’d say that you could even call this a flat 5-minutes before you’ll want to duck-and-cover under a ceiling fan.

Taken in it’s more literal sense, this would require that in order to “live local”, you would need to be able to meet all your needs along the most direct route from the station to your home. However, what happens in an area with good infill and a proper mixed-use block; you get enticed to pop into more than one place, and thus reset your internal timer of sorts.

For example, there were plenty of afternoons when I would get off the light rail at Roosevelt, walk to Verde* for some tacos to go, pop over to the Public market for some snacks or local beers, then grab a latte at either Royal or Lola on my way home.

* man, I miss those tacos

Yes, our neighborhoods have missing elements, and a lot of them need help improving their walkability, but I bet if we look at what is currently existing in our TOD areas, there’s plenty of good stuff already.

What makes a neighborhood?
I was once told that in jolly olde England when forming a village, the residents knew they needed three things for sure: a church, a pub and a village green. The second thing I spotted* was how each of these three areas served a specific need, but they were all also social places. Indeed, it’s not just the buildings that make a place a community, it’s the way we use them, how often we visit, and what we expect once we get there. I’m certain there are literal translations of each of these in many neighborhoods across town, but is the presence of these enough to make a neighborhood “complete”? What are the other necessary third places?

* the first thing I thought was “where did they get their food” before deciding they probably all just ate at the pub.  That’s what I would do, at least.

Well, in many parts of Phoenix, the local coffee shop is a prime candidate. This is probably the closest place I’ve ever seen to our city’s version of Cheers. This may, however, also hinge on your profession and/or leisurely pursuits (such as if you’re hoping to meet awesome bloggers like me and buy me a coffee, which is greatly appreciated). For others, it’s the park, or the pool or a bar or record shop; the list goes on and on. It’s clear that modern society has an uncanny ability to make a place “happen” if there is a will. I’m sure the right person could make my laundry room the hippest 10 sq ft on the block, but that’s neither here nor there.

So, if we’re talking about whether or not you can meet all your daily needs within a walkable distance, the first step is to figure out what those needs consist of.  Here’s what I got*, feel free to tell me what I’ve left off:

  • Grocery Store/Market
  • Community Gathering Space
  • Health Care
  • Entertainment
  • Open Space

*assuming that housing, workplace and schooling are already met somewhere along the line.

Customization creates character:
Now I know the five items listed above are rather vague, but that’s how we get to the best part. Sure, every geographic area has somewhere that people can gather, most have several, but what the place is, and how we identify with the folks who use it, goes a long way towards changing a place from a collection of buildings into a vibrant neighborhood.

Not every neighborhood needs an AJ’s instead of a Safeway, but I bet those that have one are in some way defined by that relationship. Same thing with having a Starbucks or not, or a really great deli as opposed to a taqueria. Indeed, I’d say the character of a neighborhood is defined by the places WE opt into supporting, and the best way to do that is to go on foot and get in touch with everything that surrounds us.

In my neighborhood we have multiple coffee shops, bars with great character, a farmer’s market, and fantastic buildings that I sometimes just stare at. Admittedly, on my day off I’ll often head down to the corner and then in some kind of Robert Frost-ian moment, decide which path to take and that will make all the difference. Maybe I feel like having Greek for lunch, then once I’m at the Greek restaurant, I’m that much closer to the movie theatre, and from the theatre I’d walk by a certain pub on my way back… and so on.

Living Local
In the process of writing this piece, I took several 5-10 minute strolls around my neighborhood.  Sometimes I was “researching” and took paths a lot like the one I described above, sometimes I was gathering my thoughts, sometimes I just wanted a sandwich and realized one wasn’t going to find its way to my doorstep on its own. Regardless, at the start of this, I would have bet you that I could tell you precisely what is missing from my neighborhood (bookstore/after-hours deli, please) and what we have too much of (parking lots), but going through the process I realized how many spots I’d either overlooked or forgotten in the three years I’ve lived here. Today, I’d wager the same is true of you.

So I leave you with a bit of a challenge; head out your front door and see what there is within a 5-minute walk/jog/bike-ride.  See if you can get everything you need, and some things you don’t really need, without ever getting in your car. I bet you’ll like what you find, and your local business-owners will love the support. If I’m wrong, perhaps you should think about what’s missing and what you can do to encourage a change.

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9 Responses

  1. Will Novak says:

    Nice article Ryan. For my money one of the most walkable areas of Phoenix is Uptown, anchored by Central and Camelback.

    Within walking distances there’s a myriad of options for banking, bars, restaurants, coffee shops and boutique retail. Big box retail is just a short LRT trip away. There are 2 grocery stores (AJs & Fry’s) in the area, unique entertainment options (like Docs Place for jazz) and the whole area has a sense of place.

    The one big thing its missing is a quality urban park. Colter Park is around there, but its terribly designed and not really maintained. Steele Indian School Park is also fairly nearby but it fails to impress as well, a shame for a park of its size & key location.

  2. Julie Baier says:

    I am completely able to meet all of my needs car free in my downtown neighborhood. Sure, I may employ a bike trailer or another means of getting heavy stuff from point A to point B. But I’m fortunate enough to live a short bike ride from a light rail station that takes me within another short bike ride of any place I need to be.

  3. Ana says:

    I’ve just moved to Ahwatukee after 7 years living in downtown Phoenix.Within walking distance a have a supermarket, an bike shop, a bank, few restaurants all independent including a Japanese, a bar ,a pharmacy, doctors, vets, and awesome park:South Mountain……ah! and a bus stop that takes me to the rail station the few times i want to go back to Downtown Phoenix. It takes me 20 min in my bicycle to get to work(there is a bicycle line and people is respectful towards bikers) and in my way I find more independent or not, restaurants,bars ,retail boutiques,health stores etc,etc.Ahwatukee its also Phoenix and its awesome.

  4. I believe that living “local” is best done in an area with a critical mass that allows the variety of services to satisfy a diverse group of residents and users. That critical mass is considered anti-American unless you live in NYC or San Francisco.

    One important thing to consider is that the character of our population has changed. Neighborhoods were dominated by families with a working breadmaker, a homemaker, and kids that got married before leaving the family home (and the kids had chores they had to complete everyday, taking much of their “spare” time). The elderly usually lived with one of their children’s families until they passed, and aided in the domestic duties we that today have either outsourced or de-prioritized in our modern lifestyles.

    There were no single twenty somethings running around at all hours. They had families and responsibilities. Even if they went to college, they were usually involved with extra curricular activities that today tend to be invitation only, or studied much more than students today could conceive. They met their spouse at school, got a job and started a family after graduating.

    In answer to the question about where people ate back in jolly olde England, people ate at home. They had gardens, pantries, a cow or two (dairy and beef–sometimes shared among families), chickens for eggs and meat, & hunted for additional meat for the winter. The restaurant was not a staple back then, even for visitors, as a boarding house was usually someone’s residence who let bedrooms and provided meals as part of the fee (early bed and breakfasts) for travelers.

    I am constantly looking for no or low cash ways to spend my time in a public realm. Until Borders closed at the Biltmore, that was my for profit “library” that I would swing over to after the public library closed. As you noted, there is not a major bookstore within 8 miles of downtown now that allows for lounging. We may not necessarily want a Barnes & Noble downtown, but what else could we create to fill that gap?

    We have privatized most of our “third places”. The mall is probably the most popular form of a third place where people can hang out without having to buy something or have something specific they are going their for. Many of our “public” spaces have restricted hours, are privatized for events, or have such deferred maintenance as to not be a desireable place to be.

    Yes we can live local, and for the niche population that lives within a 10-minute walk of the LRT station, this is much more available. For the rest of the population, they have to work more diligently to drive to a place they can either park and ride or park and walk to the plethora of services they may desire: malls and shopping centers are the most common choices. There is much to be improved to live local, and it will require monumental and continuous effort to make it work in the valley.

  5. David says:

    Where there is a challenge there is an opportunity. Want to create social gathering places in Arizona? You need one thing and one thing only…shade.

    If it rains in New York strangers huddle together in dry spots to stay dry. We need more spots to huddle together and keep cool.

    An open-air park in Arizona is great October-March, but when the kids are out of school in July your park better have big trees or pavilions. The buildings in Phoenix look nice, but they rarely incorporate shade in their design. Want someone to stop in your coffee shop? Get an awning or make sure you have a covered patio.

    Traveling down Central I often see people gathered at bus stops and no matter how many buses go by they don’t get on. They’re just there to beat the heat.

    I’m borrowing this rant from a local architect who’s name escapes me, but perhaps we need a shade brigade. Creating a meeting place in Phoenix might be as simple as planting a tree.

  6. Moth says:

    Saw this on Sustainable Cities Collective.
    Great article! I’ve long been a big fan of TOD and POD, not only from a carbon footprint argument, but also a personal footprint (in ever growing urban populations) as well as re-developing a sense of community. It just seems to be practical and desirable from whatever angle you come from within busy metropolitan environments.

  7. […] Today’s post is by contributing writer Ryan Glass. […]

  8. […] Today’s post is by contributing writer Ryan Glass: […]

  9. […] or weren’t allowed to admit it on Twitter; neither of which inspires me to continue being an advocate for public transit in this automobile-centric city of […]

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