Living in a Walkable Neighborhood. Testify!

Posted on: December 7th, 2011 by Priya Chhaya 5 Comments

(Photo: Flickr user Cougar-Studio)

A few months ago I moved from a 17 to a 92. That isn’t the probability of my going to the gym every day, or the ratio of museum trips to preservation-related movies watched. It’s my neighborhood walk score.

It wasn’t an entirely unexpected change, or even an unconscious decision. After talking the talk for over five years, this was an opportunity for me to (no pun intended) walk the walk. Also unsurprising is that I love it.

While living further out from the city, I did try to be sustainable - I would drive my car to a commuter lot to travel via carpool (the slug line, if anyone is familiar with it), or drive to the Metro (Washington, DC’s subway system). If I could, I would make sure to time all my shopping and socializing in the same area, so that once I parked I limited my driving time. And as much as I could control it I shopped local, and attempted to eat local.

But this - this is different. For five days of the week everything I need is steps away from my new home. I take public transportation 95% of the time, exercise, and get my hair cut without having to get into my car. There are restaurants galore - including my favorite socially-conscious coffee shop - and a few (semi-affordable) independent retail stores owned and operated by small business owners. Not to mention a branch of the public library system. Moving from a 17 to a 92 has made my life, in some ways, less complicated.

Last week I reflected a little on the materiality (or immateriality, rather) of historic preservation. In the post, I cited four elements that connect the physicality of preservation to the more ephemeral, meaningful pieces of what we do: Place-History-Memories-Character.

These four characteristics played heavily in my choice to live in my new neighborhood:

Place: This is my first home away from the place where I grew up with my parents. It was a big step for me, and I knew that when choosing the neighborhood it had to reflect what I wanted to be, where I wanted to spend my time, and a sense of place that reflected some of what I believed in.

History: The direct neighborhood in which I live is not historic in the usual sense of the word - although a large portion of the retail/foodie area was built in 1944. However it does lie adjacent to a National Register district that was once a part of the DC boundaries, and then developed by Defense Homes Corporation during World War II.

Memories: Having lived in the region already, I came to my new neighborhood with a visceral connection to it. My friends and I gather for monthly book clubs at my coffee shop, and I’ve celebrated birthdays at many of the restaurants.

Character: I think, above all else, this area has character. When leaving my apartment building I can run in one direction to see the amazing World War II area housing that still remains, and I am often immersed in green space that lines the sidewalks. While my building is of the 1970s variety, I can look outside my window and see the cityscape of DC arrayed in lights (including the Washington Monument). That feature alone is inspiring.

Going from a 17 to a 92 doesn’t mean I don’t miss my old haunts, my childhood parks/playgrounds, and favorite local restaurants that I still visit when I’m in the area. But I can say that it’s made me an even bigger proponent as a historic preservationist to protecting places that just like this for the future.

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Reflections

5 Responses

  1. Richard Gibson

    December 7, 2011

    Walkable Butte Montana is what made me a preservationist and historian, after a life as an oil exploration geologist, living in places like Houston and Denver. Now I live in an 1898 house, walk 8 blocks to pick up the Chamber of Commerce trolley to give tours around town, walk 6 blocks to walking tour headquarters in a building with complex heritage (1877-84-91), walk 4 blocks to a 1917 hotel once owned by Burton K Wheeler (longtime US senator) and now adaptively converted into a wonderful local brewery. I’ve filled up my car’s tank 7 times this year and still have three-quarters of that 7th fill-up left.

    Butte has its issues – winter’s length is one of them, local politics another – but I wouldn’t trade it for being a rich oilman in Houston. No way.

  2. Alan Hess

    December 7, 2011

    Irvine, California, may not be the first example of a walkable community that jumps to your mind. It’s solid suburbia, but it’s walkable and bikeable. As the largest master-planned community from the1960s, Irvine used all of the most progressive ideas developed since at least the 1920s: greenbelts, mixed housing types, intelligently planned amenities — and good Modern architecture. I can walk from my house to the market in 5 min; to schools in 5 min; library in 10 min; coffee house, hardware store, and bank in 15 min; nature preserve in 5 min. And all along mature greenbelts (not arterials) with lawns, pools, playgrounds, etc. It’s part of the Modern and suburban city fabric that historic preservation is beginning to value for both its historical character and its urban character.

  3. Matt Stegall

    December 8, 2011

    Richmond, Indiana is a great city for walking and bikeing. It has five national Register Historic Districts all attached to one another. There are several natural environments close by in the city limits and a greeway that stretches over 60 miles. We live downtown close to everything and I live one block from my office. A nice city to visit, history, culture, character.

  4. Kendra Kennedy

    December 14, 2011

    Mr. Gibson’s comment appropriately points out the difference in walkability between Houston, Texas and Butte, Montanta. But I do want to throw in a caveat in defense of my new hometown, Houston. While most of Houston is incredibly depressing massive urban sprawl, when I moved here away from walkable Annapolis, Maryland, I chose to live in the neighborhood of Montrose near downtown Houston because of that neighborhood’s walkability. After driving all around Houston looking for housing, I settled on Montrose because of its historic and physical character. Even though it put me a bit farther away from work (though still only a 30min commute, which isn’t bad for a big metro area anywhere in the country), I haven’t been disappointed. Grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, dry cleaners, pubs, clothing shops, salons, and more are all within a 5-10 minute tree-lined walk from my place. In the evenings and on weekends, I hardly use my car. I can walk to my hairdresser, grab some groceries at one of three local stores, and meet friends at any of the great eateries and bars nearby. Plus, now that I’ve gotten my bike tuned up, I can hit the local library and much more without the aid of an internal combustion engine. Even a visiting friend from DC who lives in said city with no car to her name was impressed with Montrose. So don’t forget, even in a city as car-friendly as Houston, there are still pockets where those of us who care about community and history can live an environmentally-conscious existence. Now if only Houston could only improve its pathetic public transit system, maybe I could get to work without a car too. :)