A Placemaking Journal

The Passion of Place

David Byrne noted in last Sunday’s NY Times that people get hooked on cycling because of pleasure, not health, money, or carbon footprint. “Emotional gratification trumps reason.”

Ben Brown agrees, using Byrne’s “Stop Making Sense” as a blog title on the subject of community engagement and how special interest groups often talk past each other. “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.”

Steve Mouzon’s Original Green says sustainable places are nourishable, accessible, serviceable, securable, lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal. “If a building cannot be loved, it is demolished and carted off to the landfill in a generation or two. All embodied energy of its material is lost.”

It’s the passion of great places that gets any of us going. Involved. Engaged. Contributing.

But it’s also that passion that drives economies, makes connections between people, and gives resilience to jobs and the marketplace. I’ve blogged about it before, in terms of an Urban Happiness Index.

Deadly Passion

What if we get passionate about things that will kill us? As Margo Wootan, from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, points out in HBO’s The Weight of the Nation, “Marketing shapes kids’ choices to foods that will kill them.” Kelly Brownell, of the Rudd Center on Obesity and Food Policy, agrees junk food marketing to kids is “powerful, pernicious, and predatory.”

Grist’s review complains that the show doesn’t address other real causes of obesity, including politics and policies that drive consumption. That includes legalizing character-based neighbourhoods, where the streets tempt us out to walk and bike. And where smaller schools, parks, and places of worship get kids on bikes and out of cars.

Out there on those walkable streets, the popsicles aren’t so deadly. Nor are the traffic-calmed cars. And the engaging gathering places encourage us to spend more time, less money. Our time can be invested in leading our community instead of driving to someone else’s, leaking to other marketplaces. Walkable neighbourhoods support community-based economic development.

Rewarding Good Behavior

A plethora of numbers on the street reward healthy urbanism, even if they aren’t what get us going in the first place.

Walkscore’s new Bikescore offers up some strong reasons to cycle: $10 saved for each 10 mile commute. One pound CO2 saved for every mile pedaled. 30 minutes per day of riding cuts odds of stroke and heart disease by 50%. What more do you need to go jump on your bike? Oh yeah, it’s fun. And you can hang out with friends and family.

Then Walkscore’s new Street Smart helps you find places where you’re more likely to engage in active transportation. The tool measures walkability by category, average block length, and number of intersections.

Regular walking increases memory (hippocampus size) and decreases risk of dementia. Walking isn’t just good for you; it’s also an indicator of your socioeconomic status.

Christopher Leinberger’s Walk this Way compares DC neighbourhoods, and finds that walkable places have higher office, residential, and retail rents, retail revenues, and for-sale residential values. The lower transportation costs in these walkable places do not yet offset higher housing costs, suggesting a supply-demand mismatch that urges politicians toward zoning reform to level the playing field.

Forbes’ Pedaling to Prosperity lays out the ways that biking saves U.S. riders billions a year. Average annual operating cost of a bicycle: $308. Average annual operating cost of a car: $8,220. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of bicycle commuters grew 40% in the US. The average American household spends more on transportation (16%) than on food or healthcare. Low-income families may spend up to 55% of income on transportation when they live in auto-centric environments.

Our love affair with the car may be over. Or at least downgraded to a “placid coexistence rooted more in need than pleasure,” according to the Washington Post, which asks, “Is ambivalence the death of romance?” I’d say so.

Kindling a Old Flame

The other day in a Placemaking@Work tweetchat, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns commented, “Actually, the genius here is that the SmartCode is easy and it builds productive places (that are fun too).” That pretty much sums up my point.

It’s true, for the last 31 years, form-based codes have been looking to reverse the auto centric qualities of single-use zoning, and return places to the human scale. Places where it’s easy to bike, walk, and take transit.

Some of my favourite parts of the Winnipeg Transect.

Many form-based codes use the rural-to-urban Transect as a shape sorter, so neighbourhoods can be true to character. The shape of towns and cities change as we move from the wilderness (T-1), to ag lands (T-2), to single-family detached (T-3), to general urban (T-4), to urban center (T-5), and finally to urban core (T-6).

A major roadblock to health – for us and for our economies – are the zoning laws that mandate a separation of uses and wide, expensive roadways that we can no longer afford.

Walkable places connect us with the ideas, events and people we are passionate about. And the places themselves are lovable because they’re immersive environments with their own singular DNA of place.

While running in the T-3 and T-4 parts of my neighbourhood, I see an average of 82 pedestrians and cyclists per hour. Several of these people I know personally. This couldn’t happen in S-4 or R-1 (suburbia).

Sure, it slows down my run a bit, to connect up with other people, or pause to plan a coffee later. But it also pulls me back out there tomorrow morning to go again. And reminds me of what I love so much about my current city of Winnipeg: strong families, connected communities, powerful art, funky retail, old elms, sunshine, and lots and lots of Tyndall Stone.

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness … It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” That’s how Marina Keegan put it.

The payback of livable places really can’t be calculated in dollars, or pounds of fat or carbon, or even hours. The payback of place is passion.

–Hazel Borys

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