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Book Spotlight: “Within Walking Distance"

Posted on Jul 01, 2018 in Philip Langdon , Sundog Books , July–August 2018

Philip Langdon, contributor to The Seaside Times, offers an in-depth report on how public officials, citizens and developers are working together to create walkable and inclusive communities.

About the Book:

For 5,000 years, human settlements were nearly always compact places. Everything a person needed on a regular basis lay within walking distance. But then the great project of the twentieth century — sorting people, businesses, and activities into separate zones, scattered across vast metropolises — took hold, exacting its toll on human health, natural resources, and the climate. Living where things were beyond walking distance ultimately became, for many people, a recipe for frustration. As a result, many Americans have begun seeking compact, walkable communities or looking for ways to make their current neighborhood better connected, more self-sufficient, and more pleasurable.

In “Within Walking Distance,” journalist and urban critic Philip Langdon looks at why and how Americans are shifting toward a more human-scale way of building and living. He shows how people are creating, improving, and caring for walkable communities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Starting conditions differ radically, as do the attitudes and interests of residents. To draw the most important lessons, Langdon spent time in six communities that differ in size, history, wealth, diversity, and education, yet share crucial traits: compactness, a mix of uses and activities, and human scale. The six are Center City, Philadelphia; the East Rock section of New Haven, Connecticut; Brattleboro, Vermont; the Little Village section of Chicago; the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon; and the Cotton District in Starkville, Mississippi. In these communities, Langdon examines safe, comfortable streets; sociable sidewalks; how buildings connect to the public realm; bicycling; public transportation; and incorporation of nature and parks into city or town life. In all these varied settings, he pays special attention to a vital ingredient: local commitment.

To improve conditions and opportunities for everyone, Langdon argues that places where the best of life is within walking distance ought to be at the core of our thinking. This book is for anyone who wants to understand what can be done to build, rebuild, or improve a community while retaining the things that make it distinctive.

Book Excerpt:

Walkable communities come in many sizes and complexions. They span the economic spectrum and face a wide assortment of challenges, but one strength many of them share is a capacity for bringing people together: both to combat social ills and to make daily life more rewarding.

In the East Rock section of New Haven, Connecticut, I met with Eva Geertz, a writer and former bookseller, to find out why she is fiercely attached to her neighborhood and how she incorporates its numerous small, independent grocery stores and cafes into her ambles around town. East Rock’s food stores are a world apart from the big supermarkets. “At the Orange Street Market, they have a real butcher, Jimmy the butcher,” Geertz said. “If you have a side of beef, Jimmy Apuzzo would carve it for you. Jimmy is good. Jimmy is awesome. I do believe that when you buy ground beef there, it’s not coming from 17 different cows. He’s grinding it himself.”

Little neighborhood grocery stores can be expensive, but Geertz has mastered the art of shopping thriftily and coming home with things of quality. “I always have a giant bag, ready to pick things up,” she said. When she stops in at Romeo & Cesare’s, a grocery store operated by burly Romeo Simeone, who speaks with Italian-inflected English and has opera playing in the background, she basks in the store’s personality. “Romeo’s is really family-oriented. Romeo wants to say hello to all the babies. Fran, his daughter, knows their names.”

And if some things do cost more than Geertz would like, there’s the compensation of knowing that she’s saving money by not driving. “I actively hate being behind the wheel,” she emphasized. “The walkable city: It’s not a trivial thing.”

What Geertz and individuals in Philadelphia and Chicago expressed to me was the satisfaction they get from being part of a walkable community, where there are many ways to get to know people and where one person can often make a genuine difference.

Janet Finegar lives in Northern Liberties, a section of Philadelphia that as recently as the 1990s was bounteously supplied with rubble. Tanneries, cigar factories, breweries, a factory that made records (vinyl ones), and other industries had mostly cleared out of Northern Liberties, leaving the two-third-square-mile corner of Philly for the next generation—Finegar’s generation—to come and set it right.

She and her neighbors did exactly that. In an urban precinct that had no parks, they built one on their own. After two decades of volunteer labor contributed by people who could walk to the park from their homes, Liberty Lands had a butterfly garden, a Native American garden, a community garden, 180 trees of varied species, picnic benches, a mural depicting birds and bees, and open grassland.

“It solidifies everything that goes on in the neighborhood,” Finegar said. “We all need to settle in a little bit and love our places and know our places and work to make them better.”

“Within Walking Distance” is available at Sundog Books in Seaside.