In her ambitious new book, The Walkable City (Véhicule Press, 2008), Mary Soderstrom writes: “The walkable city, the oldest kind of city is going to be the key to whatever success we have in meeting the challenges of the future.”
After all, until the early nineteenth-century people moved only as fast and as far as their feet could carry them. Urban centres had to mirror this fact, whether they developed organically, like in Europe, or according to self-conscious plans, like in North America. Residents lived close to their work until the rise of the suburbs, expressways, and shopping malls separated residential from commercial districts. In many cities since that time, there’s been a distinct lack of streets that invite walking. Soderstrom sets off to examine the planning policies and circumstances that have made cities the way they are; to find out what makes neighbourhoods walkable; and to assess how cities can achieve a more walkable, more livable, and greener future.
Because she dedicates extended discussion to Toronto—where October has just been declared the Toronto Walking Festival—it’s worth exploring Soderstrom’s book in greater detail.
Like a pedestrian on an urban stroll, taking advantage of short-blocks and cross-streets to explore new routes or to discover a never-before-seen neighbourhood or jumble of buildings, Soderstrom’s book is a true exploration of the topic. In addition to discussions of urban planning from Roman times to the present, housing and economic policies, the looming energy crisis, and the current sub-prime mortgage meltdown in America, Soderstrom darts off onto colourful tangents through literature and film with urban planning lessons gleaned from Emile Zola and It’s a Wonderful Life, among many others. By doing so, The Walkable City separates itself from more dry academic works in urban studies.
Soderstrom begins by talking about two thinkers who have had huge influence on making cities walkable: Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who undertook the nineteenth-century reconstruction of Paris by clearing slums and razing entire neighbourhoods; and Jane Jacobs, the twentieth-century urban philosopher, beloved hero of stop-the-freeway movements in New York and Toronto, and promoter of municipal development on a human scale. By the very nature of her book, Soderstrom cannot offer a definitive account of the biography, ideas, and actions of either urban theorist, but her background shows how their ideas continue to influence the cities around us.
Following Jacobs’s advice, Soderstrom looks beyond the mere ideas of city planning to investigate the lived experience of the city. So to extend discussion to the real world, she sets off to examine case studies of walkable—and supposedly walkable—neighbourhoods to uncover what works and doesn’t work in Toronto, Paris, Singapore, North Vancouver, and beyond. In addition to providing a street-level view of that streetscape today, in each case she investigates an area’s landscape, history, and the policies and ideologies that framed its development within a broader city. It’s easy to get lost in the details, but it’s not always completely clear how all these layers of a street’s texture mesh together into the larger argument. Nevertheless, she uncovers fascinating nuggets such as the Brazilian urban planner who, given Haussmann-esque carte blanche to completely remake Curitiba’s downtown in the 1970s, chose instead to turn a busy roadway into a pedestrian mall. Despite initial opposition, he became a local hero.
Soderstrom wisely looks beyond the downtown core—for Toronto, her discussion includes not only the Annex, but also Don Mills and Vaughan—and she recognizes that the suburbs will also have to make strides in becoming walkable. Canada’s original Garden City, Don Mills, was developed by E.P. Taylor as a self-sufficient community to meet the pent-up demand for post-war housing. Despite the fact that there are no sidewalks (or at least not along Greenland Drive where Soderstrom explored), because it’s laid out in four quadrants with low-rise apartments and houses within easy reach of a crossroads that serves as a community heart and a shopping district, Don Mills remains quite pedestrian-friendly today.
In Vaughan, however, Soderstrom dissects a less-than-walkable district around Vellore Park Road to examine the principles underlying its construction. Vellore Park neighbourhood is one of seventeen areas built in the New Urbanist style in Toronto—there are more here than anywhere else in North America—which, as a more compact design, is purported to place more emphasis on walking. Soderstrom discovers that not only are there no sidewalks (again), but that the simplest errands can only be undertaken on foot at great time and distance. It might be a bit presumptuous to condemn a neighbourhood before it is fully built—maybe the Cornell district in Markham would’ve been a more matured area to investigate—but it seems instructive that suburban children no longer walk to school or get sent around the corner to pick up a carton of milk. Simply ascribing to a set of broad design principles will be small comfort if the lived experience of the street does not fulfill them.
Acknowledging that no city is perfect, Soderstrom’s volume shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in the last couple chapters to provide lessons for cities like Toronto. Her tone is hopeful but cautious. The current mortgage meltdown and the looming oil crisis create the conditions for an uncertain future, but they also provide the “opportunity to rejig the entire relation between city and suburbs.” Just as post-war sprawl was determined by the stipulations of CMHC-sponsored mortgages, the availability of financing—what style of home will it fund and in what sorts of neighbourhoods—will determine the future of housing stock. Will the crumbling infrastructure of roadways be rethought or simply reconstructed—and furthermore will government abdicate responsibility to a private sector that has a vested interest in increasing traffic on toll roads like the 407, not in alleviating it? Should the rejuvenation of once-declining areas, such as Montreal’s Griffintown, be undertaken as massive projects or as small-scale redevelopments? Can the refurbishment of older high-rise residential towers and the erection of new ones be achieved in a way that better connects them to the streetscape below—in that the higher rents new towers demand for street-level retail don’t drive out lower-margin neighbourhood businesses? How will citizens need to adjust to a city that meets the demands of the future when this means “we are going to have to live closer together than most of us have been accustomed to”?
Soderstrom raises these and other questions of dry public policy options, but her deft writing style keeps it all quite interesting and lively. The book is very well researched but, as is the infuriating case of so many quasi-academic books aimed at a popular audience, lacks an index so that readers can return to quickly consult the book later. It would also have been useful to include maps to give a bit of context to unfamiliar settings explored in Paris and Singapore. These are minor quibbles because she’s given us an easy-to-read book that presents substantial ideas that will continue to percolate as the reader explores his or her city.
Photo by PDPhotography from the Torontoist Flickr Pool. Cover Image courtesy of Véhicule Press.