When I was a kid, I grew up in a subdivision in Clinton Township, Michigan (a northern suburb of Detroit). Despite being part of the urban sprawl that is the greater metro United States, this neighborhood was about as non-walkable as could be. There were (and still aren’t) any sidewalks, many of the houses were set fairly far back on acre plots of land. Adding to the walkability nightmare was the furniture store at the end of the street. Despite the fact that the subdivision was designed do discourage people from cutting through it, the furniture trucks were always going up and down the street. It’s no wonder why the road I grew up on still looks like something you could find on the south side of Detroit near the salt mine.
This meant that come halloween, it wasn’t uncommon that my parents would take me and my little brother 7 miles south to to the home of George and Margaret Cox, my maternal grandparents, in Eastpointe (although it may have been East Detroit back then). At the time, I felt like this decision was obvious for other reasons: the people in this neighborhood were much more into the season than my neighbors. My neighborhood was full of older residents and people who didn’t do much walking, so there weren’t a lot of kids around. My grandparents lived in a neighborhood with a lot of single family homes full of young families. The decorations were what made me think this was the place to be as a young lad: these people went all out. House after house of purple and orange lights, witches, pumpkins, entirely too many spiderwebs, black cats, and faux headstones with corny cemetery parody (such as “Here lies dead head Fred” and other assorted tomfoolery) were all the rage. After all, it was the 90s, and people were spending each year as thought it was christmas.
As a kid, my thought was simple: these people are really into halloween, so this is where we should be. Good job Mom and Dad.
But what this place really had that set it apart from my neighborhood is the fact that it’s so walkable! The enjoyment of a kid trick or treating means you get to go from house to house getting free candy. When the walk is to a house far away and down a driveway, you get tired and cranky quick. The smaller lots meant it was easier to get from house to house, and get more candy. The smaller setbacks meant less time to get to the front door as well as more light to see where we were going. My neighborhood’s lights were limited to porch lights and cars driving down the street, and with the big lots there wasn’t much light on the street. I remember carrying flashlights if we didn’t go out early enough. The sidewalks meant we could stop and talk, run into other kids, or just see what we had in our bags without worrying about a car hitting us.
Because we’re visual learners, here’s a side by side neighborhood comparison.
As I take a look back into my childhood from a planning perspective, it’s no wonder that I liked coming to a different neighborhood to trick or treat: it’s all about the walkability. It apparently always has been and always will be.
This idea is nothing new, Scott Doyon talked about the ‘popsicle’ test back in June in a post titled “Smart Growth = Smart Parenting“. The idea is that if a kid can go somewhere, buy a popsicle, and get home before it melts, than you have a solid walkable neighborhood. A few months ago I came upon this post on The Atlantic by Kaid Benfield, who likened the popsicle test to trick-or-treating, as he noticed that more and more parents are bringing kids to a town center to trick-or-treat, or into his own walkable neighborhood. And I thought to myself: “This is nothing new, this has been happening for years…even I’ve been part of this for years!”
As planners, developers, and everyday citizens, we have to ask ourselves “what makes neighborhoods work for everyone?”If it works well for children, it just might work well for people with a physical disability or the elderly as well. New neighborhoods should be built in a way to make them more walkable for all citizens, big and small as well as young and old. Finding your walkscore is one thing, making a neighborhood truly walkable is something different entirely.
As far as where I grew up…well, that place still needs a lot of work.