Walkability

Seattle, WashingtonImagine you’re a city planner. If you like the NBC Sit-com “Parks and Recreation“, imagine you’re the departed character Mark Brendanawicz. (Yes, I had to look up his name to spell it.) You’ve grown accustomed, over the years, to car-centric demands, like adequate parking, traffic flow, collision reduction, etc, etc. But one day, it seems like you’ve awakened into a different world, when all the people who used to clamor for more parking spaces are now chanting, not just a new buzzword, but an entirely new word. Now they want their neighborhoods to be: Walkable.

You know how those buzzwords are. They carry fads and trends around like rafts carrying passengers in the river; rafts which soon get deflated and flimsy and must be brought ashore and disembarked.

Your float trip is only going to last as long as your raft, and your trend is only going to last as long as your buzzword. When it gets damaged or deflated, you have to either find a new buzzword to prop up your trend for a few more miles, or find a way to give the old one new life.

Alexandria, VirginiaChristianity is the worst about this. It is lately, anyway, as it tries desperately to jump from one ministry catch phrase to the next to the next. In the 70s we pumped up the phrase “Born-again” for widespread use. In the 80s a church was all of a sudden expected to be “Relevant”. Soon after that it was all about “Gen-X”, and then “Post-Modern”. The words “Sustainable”, “Authentic”, “Narrative”, “Missional”, “Community” and “Post-Modern” have all made their appearances, some of which are still going strong.

But you, Mr. Brendanawicz, understand the fleeting nature of buzzwords very well. So you try your best to fend off the new fad until it blows over. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be blowing over like any other public whim. It seems to be growing stronger all the time.

This may be a sign that Walkability is much more than a fad. Of the last five college students I’ve met, two of them were majors in urban planning, and both agreed: the call for Walkability is now ubiquitous. And for that reason I believe it signals a paradigm shift from community development that is car-centric, to people-centric. The concerns of the pedestrian, the cyclist, and the transit-rider are gaining influence over the concerns of the concerns of the motorist, and their gains are only increasing.

Memphis, TennesseeIt should be obvious that this is not a new thing at all. This is the only way cities were ever planned or built for millenia. Every city in history was conceived with the pedestrian (and perhaps the equestrian) in mind until the 1920s, and even into the 1940s. Some older communities, and poorer regions, never made the shift to accommodating cars at all. And they are the ones holding up the banners saying “Welcome Back” to Walkability.

The movement is gaining so much strength that it’s close to establishing the new standard for neighborhood quality. The same young families who used to be attracted to a subdivision full of cul-de-sacs and three-car garages, are now bemoaning that same neighborhood’s pitiful walk score of only 29 (out of 100.)

Why are people so into Walkability all of sudden? Because it turns out that pedestrians are capable of social relationship in ways that motorists never can be. The best possible interaction you can have in your car, with the driver of another car, is a mundane gesture of traffic courtesy, after which you can wave or smile and that’s it. The worst possible interaction is not even worth thinking about.

As pedestrian, however, you have access to a whole world of relational possibilities. That is, when you’re found in a walkable community. You can give directions to a lost visitor. You can pet a dog that’s being walked. You can open a door for someone, or help carry something heavy. You can study the architecture. You can smell all the smells of the neighborhood (including, perhaps, the roses.)

You can also meet the man or woman of your dreams… which is virtually impossible while driving (although many men with horns on their steering wheels have certainly tried.)

It seems that, as a society, we’ve finally started to get the hint. The hint that, despite the fact that GPS now comes standard on our vehicles, we are lost without relationships. And this time I’m not talking about the relationships with our spouses and families and friends, but relationships with our neighborhood; chance interactions with strangers and acquaintances that make our particular collection of streets and buildings worthy of the term Community.

I wonder if the Church can share that epiphany. Have we made the connection between diversity and relational health? Between an openness to chance interaction and spiritual growth? Is it fair to measure the Walkability of our churches by their focus on people, as opposed to programs?

Because if there is one word we ministers share in common with the urban planners, it is the word Community, and the desire we should have to make it Authentic. Some cities are taking their cues from Disneyland as they construct storefronts and lamp-posts intended to evoke a bygone era of Walkability, without the substance necessary to bring that neighborhood to life. And some churches have created a new host of programs designed, ironically, to shift the focus away from programs.

Springfield, MissouriBoth efforts are, of course, self-defeating, because they treat the concept of Community like a fad, instead of what it is: a Movement. A Shift. A Homecoming.

And just like any pedestrian on the street of any historic urban “walkable” neighborhood, if we’re going to be part of it, we have to accept that we cannot control it. We can only participate if our eyes are open to random people, our ears to random music, and our noses to random flowers.

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One Response to Walkability

  1. brendon (a-wiks...ell) says:

    I love walkability. Portland is great for it and walkable neighborhoods always seem more inviting than unwalkable neighborhoods (my neighborhood doesn’t even have sidewalks, not very walkable). However, with the advent of mobile internet and social media I tend to notice as people walking in walkable areas they aren’t really interacting with those around them but, rather, those far away. Truly remaining isolated from our surroundings. I love an outdoor coffee shop with great atmosphere so I can update Facebook and make people jealous that I live in such a walkable, sustainable (walkstainable?) city. Right? Anyway, that’s my Portland observation. How that ties in to what you wrote about churches I’m not sure. Yeah for authentic, sustained community that bears each others burdens and lame jokes.

    P.S. this was posted from my mobile device, ridiculous.

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