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.”
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
- 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.
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.Tags: andres duany, arlington transit-oriented development, ASU Main, bar, bike ride, car-free living, car-lite living, CenPho, character, church pub village green, coffee shop, community, community gathering space, customization, downtown development office, england, Glendale Entertainment Corridor, grocery store, health care, living local, local businesses, lola, market, Mesa, modern society, open space, park, parking lots, places spaces and faces community dinner, pool, post-war america, record shop, relevant wit, roosevelt, roya, ryan glass, third places, transit oriented development, transportation, verde, vibrant neighborhood, village, walking