Wednesday, 13 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

As I ride into work this sunny Wednesday morning, I tip my helmet to that hearty and seemingly rare breed — the pedestrian. Representing less than 1 percent of the total commute trips in Snohomish County (and just about 2 percent in Seattle’s King County), walkers are rare. Since most of us can walk, this small number is puzzling to me. Yet I know there are serious barriers that pedestrians have to overcome simply to survive. Yes, this seems a bit dramatic, but in Washington from 1988 to 1994 there were 613 fatalities resulting from 1,887 pedestrian-vehicle “crashes” (I object to this language — such a crash is really just “getting run over”). As I contemplate the terrors of perambulatory life, I consider some immediate needs for our ardent walkers: crossing improvements, paths and trails, sidewalks, incentive programs, safety education (for drivers, too!), and enforcement of existing laws, for starters. But I can’t help but consider the bigger picture: How we design our cities and towns has an enormous effect on pedestrians, and therefore, I’d argue, on the quality of life of all residents.

County hearings will determine the future of this lakeside community.

Today I’ll walk up to the county administration building for a public hearing on Snohomish County’s Comprehensive Plan — that guiding document that envisions the future of our greater community. I’ve prepared my comments in written form and hope to articulate my thoughts during the 2003 final docket process, a system designed to accommodate amendments to the plan. The final batch of nine proposed amendments to the plan is a mixed bag: expanding urban growth areas for certain development projects, expanding urban sewer services to rural areas, starting a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program along the Stillaguamish River to protect agricultural lands, and creating a process for designating entirely new cities to be built from scratch. I’ll give testimony on the merits and disadvantages of each proposal and then return to the office. If it’s anything like the last public hearing, I’ll probably end up walking back alongside a citizen who is somewhere on the spectrum from concerned to fiercely outraged about a particular project.

Just as I am interested in how our community design changes our pedestrian habits, I wonder about the positive feedback loop between communities and community values. Who will pack the hearing room today? Those who push communities to grow, yielding (short-term) economic treasures? Those who are deeply concerned about the changing character of their own neighborhoods? It’s always a blend. It’s almost always emotional. Despite building a wall between ourselves and our connections to place (the proposals on today’s hearing agenda are examples), we grope urgently for the necessary and elusive pieces that create a healthy community.

Like many of you must be, I’m exceedingly curious about the perception of place. I spent a year after college traveling the world on a Watson fellowship studying this very topic. Studying place on the go is decidedly ironic and perhaps impossible, but I infuse my smart-growth work with nuggets of memory from that year. I think of village elders I lived with in West Africa, who told me that if they were to leave their place, all cosmic hell would break lose. I think of the Himalayan peoples I stayed with, who described the delicate balance between their actions and the deities that guard each valley. I think of the Pitjantjara and Antakarinja Australian Aboriginal groups that I camped with, who spoke to me about the seriousness of placed-based ritual. I think of the Guarani of South America, who elucidated connections between guardian spirits of various landscape elements and personal exchanges in the community. The experiences and belief systems of other cultures need not be generalized or idealized — they have their own distinct challenges and difficulties, for sure. There are, however, lessons to be learned that revolve around limits and the requisite reciprocity needed between what we give and what we take.

Perhaps I’m simplistic, but I feel that our disconnections from place can be recaptured by relearning a great art. According to that simple sage Henry Thoreau, “It is a great art to saunter.” Those few who give themselves time to saunter must know and feel something about this. Landscape becomes more familiar as the spatial scale of things shrinks to something more appropriately human. The speed at which we move through space determines what we pay attention to, how much we can absorb, and how we assemble the relationships of things in our minds. Further, fueled by observation, life becomes unquestionably more participatory — true air conditioning, surround-sound, hi-resolution graphics, tactile and olfactory stimulation. We enter a closer relationship with place and this becomes something of essential reciprocity. The possibilities in the smart growth context are apparent: How can we design communities for people? How can we enhance community interaction? How can we lead sustainable lives? How can we maintain relationships with the non-human world in our built environment? In other words, how might we re-imagine our place and reinvigorate it with those things necessary to the human spirit?

As I close the door behind me for my walk up to the public hearing, I look around downtown Everett and imagine wild potential connections between community planning efforts and numerous pairs of feet. I hope that today, in their deliberations, the County Council might see things through the eyes of a pedestrian, at least one step at a time.