Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Walking neighborhoods

Sci-fi author Orson Scott Card has some great ideas about building "walking neighborhoods" (via Dom Bettinelli). I think that this concept could be absolutely huge in terms of improving the daily happiness of women who stay at home. As I've said a thousand times, it's totally unnatural and mentally wearying for moms and their kids to be cooped up in an isolated house all the time -- it's hard on the moms and their children. I think these sorts of neighborhoods would also have a lower turnover rate, giving people the opportunity to really know their neighbors and not feel like they're surrounded by strangers all the time.

One thing I really like about this article is that Card offers specific, concrete suggestions for how to make this a reality. He notes that the idea would not work without a neighborhood store (I agree), and has some interesting thoughts on how that could work economically in the era of the Super Wal Mart:

Mixed-use neighborhoods need grocery stores or they will not work.

The trouble is, with cars ruling our lives, the giant supergroceries make us drive farther and farther because they offer a better selection at a competitive price. Nobody wants to return to the tiny corner grocery.

We don't have to. We already have all the pieces in place for a new retail model that will affect, not just grocery stores, but most retail outlets.

Computers make it possible.

At the moment, grocery stores are doing almost nothing with the data they collect using their frequent shopper cards. They know which stores we shop at and what we buy. But they still don't use that information to tailor their grocery stores to fit the neighborhood and the shoppers.

Idiotically, they still make decisions about what to stock based on the big numbers, as if they were still doing their figures on paper with quill pens. They could develop just-enough stocking practices that would allow small neighborhood stores to stock only what they actually sell to regular customers, plus a little more of the most popular items for walk-in trade.

They could make special-ordering quick and easy, using the internet, so that customers can get extra quantities for special occasions. The profitable corner grocery is easily within our reach.

Whether or not these particular suggestions are perfect, I think he's really onto something here. If a walking neighborhood opened in my area I'd start packing my boxes to move in tomorrow.


Blogger Kate said...

What I love best about my current neighborhood is that I can walk to the grocery (not a corner grocery, though there is one of those a bit further away), walk to the park, walk to the zoo, walk to mass, walk to a parenting center with lots of great toys and books, etc.

I live in uptown New Orleans, and a lot of older cities still have pockets like this, though I gather they tend to gentrify and become expensive - we only found our rental by God's grace and a generous landlord. But...omi omy the savings in gas! Our car broke down months ago and my husband bought a little scooter for work until we could afford another car, and our transportation budget dropped from 200$/month to 20$!

May 10, 2007 1:04 AM  
Blogger Mugs said...

Likewise, when our family moved interstate (in Australia)I made a conscious effort to have most things we need within walking distance (doctor, dentist, school, etc). It makes a huge difference to our health and our budget and I love bumping into people I know as I shop/walk/go to appointments.

For those who do not have the luxury of these arrangements I can only encourage them to access the 'neighbourhood' of the blogosphere.

May 10, 2007 8:00 AM  
Blogger Libby said...

Hooray for Card! The rant is LONG (thanks for excerpting it) and, well, rantish — but he's right. I'm especially intrigued by his ideas for using grocery store data to allow for smaller neighborhood markets. Let's hear it for data-driven marketing!

May 16, 2007 1:36 PM  
Blogger Whitney Johnson said...

I quite liked this idea as well, and yes, your excerpt was far more concise. We used to live in Manhattan, and walking really was the best way to get where we needed to go. It was one of the best parts of living there.

Also, like your website, like how you think.

Whitney Johnson

June 23, 2007 10:49 PM  
Blogger briana said...

Vancouver, B.C. is a living example of many of the ideas Orson Scott Card wrote about in the article. Our downtown is packed with people, small stores, offices and a few malls and big box stores. Our buses and light rail (SkyTrain) are packed - downtown and in densely populated areas, buses run every 15 minutes; SkyTrain runs every 2-5 minutes. We also have a commuter train, as he suggests, connecting outlying communities with the downtown offices. Our suburbs are also getting in on the walkable neighbourhood concept, with mixed residential and retail and transit hubs mixed in. I live in a suburban area that is very walkable and transit-accessible, although it could use more 'corner stores' like Card envisions. I have a new baby, and I just wrap him in the sling and walk or hop on the SkyTrain or community shuttle to go most places. I have never had my driver's license, and only occasionally find myself frustrated at the lack of it.

My city still has a ways to go, however. Transportation decision-makers still have a profit mindset when it comes to public transit. And there are still many parts of the suburbs where buses run only once an hour, or where so many connections are required for inter-suburb travel that some folks feel they have no choice but to drive.

July 16, 2007 3:06 AM  
Blogger ModMomMuse said...

I live in famous planned-community, Reston, Virginia, where the goals were set to make this area precisely what Card writes about. We have the convenience of D.C. just 28 miles away, but as yet have a Metro here (in the works). If you buy in the right area of Reston you can do precisely that: walk to grocery, shopping, town center, etc. The area where that is the most possible, however, is out of our financial league, so we are in a townhouse community on the wrong side of a busy parkway. However, the culture here is definitely conservation-minded, and we certainly do know our neighbors like I never have before. As a result, all of the neighbors have been able to pull together for one another during tragedies & celebrations. I LOVE it, even if it's tight space living. Our problem with distance from the two grocery shops I use the most would be a simple pedestrian bridge (especially since I'm crossing with two children under age 5)--there are many in this area, just not on our side of the parkway, yet. The great news is that I think people are always focused on this in Reston, and it might not be long before the outlaying communities within the zip codes that define Reston will benefit more easily from the amenities this community offers. Thanks for your post.

October 29, 2007 2:02 AM  

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