A Placemaking Journal

City Neighborhoods: Livin’ large

Empirical observation is a key to unlocking secrets of great urban design. As Jane Jacobs wrote in Death and Life, “The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads or principle emerge among them.” In my case, proof is in the pudding.

The most notable observation I’ve had since I sold my sports car in January, leaving me walking or biking ’round the neighborhood every day, pretty much everywhere, is that I haven’t lost a pound.

You often hear people say that urban living, because it promotes walking, is good for your waistline, but through my own advanced empirical observation I have to argue that the opposite is true.

Through this blog I’ve readily documented the great restaurants, bars, taco shops, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, liquor stores, bike shops, grocery store, thrift stores, and a new beer store located in my neighborhood (South Park, San Diego, California). All of these places are within a block or two of my bungalow home and are mostly set in single-story turn-of-the-century buildings. A quant neighborhood center, South Park has rapidly become a very hip and very cool place to walk and bike around.

The intersection of Juniper and Fern Streets, a pedestrian-scaled,
single story commercial crossroads in San Diego's South Park neighborhood.

The weather is usually 72 degrees and sunny, making my daily walks pleasurable all year. The housing stock is interesting as the element of time has made for some unique building types, with the bungalow courts being a highlight. The variety of places to eat and drink nearby are fantastic. I also get to bike the kids to and from school every day, which is fun as the training wheels came off last spring from my youngest daughter’s bike. And, having lived here for almost ten years (my Mom grew up in this same neighborhood), I know a lot of people and usually stop to have a few conversations along my way.

Food is as close as my neighbor's yard.

Here’s the problem: With so many great places so close to home, and so many ties to the people around me, my caloric intake opportunities greatly exceed my caloric expenditure requirements. Combined with a lack of discipline, there is simply too much great food and drink too close to my home. If the neighbors don’t have flour for my wife’s world-famous chicken fried steak, then I can walk down to the store and be back within minutes. When she wins some important award at work, we will walk down to our favorite restaurant to celebrate (with everyone). And, on those rare times during the week when we run out of wine while watching, “So, Americans Can Do Silly Things to Get on TV,” I can have a freshly uncorked bottle before the commercials are over. (Yes, I too notice that I’m deflecting all blame toward my lovely wife.)

It also doesn’t help that I stop and talk to my friends and storekeepers along the way, making my walks a more leisurely and social event. Such as: my neighbor from France who owns our favorite special event restaurant; my neighbor from Malta who cuts my family’s hair; Rebecca and her scones; Sam and his hipster bars; Matt and his organic street tacos; and, the list goes on and on. It is also fun to watch the younger rock-n-stroll hipsters who make our neighborhood center a very cool place to be and to be seen. They ride by on their fixies while I wave to the owner of the gym, Rob, whom I pay monthly to not visit nearly enough… and know that I love every bit of it.

So, if you really want to gauge the quality of urbanism in your city neighborhood, check your scale. If it refuses to go down, you’re probably in a great place to live!

–Howard Blackson

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