Developing a Sense of Community
When Carla and I visit a city or town in Europe we love exploring and wandering the streets. To us, no matter how many museums, palaces, parks, or cathedrals there are in a city or town, what we enjoy most is always the town itself. It’s not uncommon for us to walk 8-12 miles a day as we wander and enjoy the streets. We have yet to visit a place where having a car was necessary. And the best part of strolling the streets in Europe is the fact that so many of them are pedestrian-only. This makes a tremendous difference in our experience of a place. You can walk down the middle of the road (often cobblestone) and restaurants and shops spill out onto the sidewalks creating a cozy, vibrant, and community-based feeling as you stroll the town.
The charm of a pedestrian-only street cannot be overstated. It seems to nurture and enhance the spirit of community. The streets are typically filled with people on foot, and in that environment you’re much more likely to stop to speak with someone, to notice a shop or restaurant you want to visit, or to simply enjoy the atmosphere of the city or town. Everything you need or want - pharmacies, restaurants and bars, markets, grocery stores, gathering places like parks and squares - are all within easy walking distance from the city center. It feels like a community . . . a place designed for living.
This might seem obvious, and yet it’s necessary to write . . . a town that is filled with people walking is much more desirable, much more pleasant, and a much more effective community than a town that is filled with passing cars. Not to mention healthier than having people spend so much of their time sitting in a vehicle.
During COVID, cities such as Milan and Paris chose to create pedestrian only streets. They turned parking spots into outdoor seating and then added more bike lanes – thereby transforming what were once car-filled streets into walking and cycling-friendly areas. Many of these changes were designed to be temporary, but what these cities found was not only did the city dwellers like the change, but that it turned out to be far more lucrative for the businesses. As a result, these changes have now become permanent.
My own town of Asheville, NC (for the past 29 years) has a very European feel to it. It’s a wonderful town with fantastic food, a thriving arts community, and beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, the traffic in the city center has become quite congested as more and more people are visiting or moving there. And I think Asheville missed out on a great opportunity during COVID by not converting some of its streets to pedestrian only. It would have been a tremendous upgrade . . . but it didn’t happen. I understand that in many cities (especially in the U.S.) there are concerns that businesses will suffer if car traffic goes down. But it turns out that quite the opposite is true. The more foot traffic a town has, the better the businesses do. And this just makes sense. If you happen to drive by a restaurant, the likelihood that you can immediately pull over, park, and check it out is slim to none. But, if you’re strolling past, you could stop to look at the menu, check out the atmosphere inside, and even decide at that moment to pull up a chair and enjoy a meal if you so choose.
If those in charge ever ask for my opinion on the matter (something that is not likely to happen) . . . I would recommend that they have their city planners travel abroad - to explore some of these European cities to see how a walkable city actually works. It would be so nice to see the U.S. move from what often feels like an impersonal, overly busy, and car-centric country to a place that is filled with walkable, friendly, human-centric streets and town centers where people can take a moment to greet their neighbors and feel connected to their town. And the beauty of it all . . . transforming a few streets to pedestrian-only costs very little money and the return on investment can best be described in one word . . . community.
For More Information . . .
Walk Score is a company that uses a scale of 1 to 100 to evaluate the walkability of cities with a population of 200,000 or more. A city’s walkability is determined by how many errands can be done without a car. It is no surprise that New York City is the most walkable city in the US with a score of 89. The average walk score of all American cities with a population of over 200,000 is 49.
According to Walk Score:
A Score between 0 and 24 represents a community that is “Car-Dependent: almost all errands require a car”,
between 25 and 49 is “Car-Dependent: most errands require a car”,
between 50 and 69 is “Somewhat Walkable: some errands can be accomplished on foot”, between 70 and 89 is “Very Walkable: most errands can be accomplished on foot”
between 90 and 100 is “Walker’s Paradise: daily errands do not require a car”.
Walk Score is a computation for U.S. cities only, and I was not able to find any comparable tool for measuring European cities. However, based on my own experience (which is no doubt anecdotal) from traveling around Europe, European cities are far more walkable than U.S. cities. Every city we visited in Europe has been very walkable. This includes, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Lisbon, Florence, and many more. Walkability is just part of the urban life in Europe and is a huge reason why we love being there.