One of the surprise blessings of living through an extended season of quarantine has been going on regular extended walks with my wife, Wendy, and our faithful Chihuahua, ChiChi.
ChiChi seems to enjoy the opportunity to sniff new bushes and trees and fire hydrants and Wendy and I have grown to love the unhurried conversations as we amble through the neighborhood. But these walks have also made me reflect on the shape of our particular neighborhood and neighborhoods generally.
Let’s start with sidewalks. After going on dozens of walks during the quarantine I have come to the conclusion that our suburban neighborhood was designed with the automobile in mind, not the pedestrian. Don’t get me wrong - there are some sidewalks. But where they have been added (not every block has sidewalks) they seem to be something of an afterthought (they cut through people’s yards on one side of the street) and are not much to look at or walk on (these narrow strips of mismatched concrete are only wide enough for one person to walk on.)
This small neighborhood detail isn’t terrible. There’s nothing wrong with walking single file, of course. And I know that many neighborhoods have no sidewalks at all. I’m not complaining about our sidewalks, I’m just noticing them. And I’m noticing what they tell me.
They tell me that this neighborhood was not designed for pedestrians. They tell me that walking somewhere is not expected or normative in a suburban setting. They tell me that those who are driving outrank those who are walking (no crosswalks in our neighborhood). And they tell me that our lives are indeed subtly affected by the built environment around us whether we recognize that fact or not.
I find myself wishing I lived in a more walkable neighborhood. I wonder what type of fuss I and my neighbors would have to make to get real sidewalks put in by our municipality. I contemplate becoming a civil engineer. Lofty thoughts, perhaps.
In the meantime, I love how my wife, Wendy, has cut the gordian knot by simply walking in the middle of the road. She does that as if it were normal. As if this is the most natural place in the world to walk. As if pedestrians were important to the neighborhood.
I’m assuming cars will win back the neighborhood once the quarantine gets lifted. But in the meantime, I’ve joined Wendy in the middle of the street.