Urban Planner Jeff Speck coined the term “the useful walk”, to highlight the tragedy of how the useful walk became almost completely engineered out of late-twentieth-century urban planning. The unrelenting segregation of housing from retail that characterized post WWII planning, left many people with no destination for a useful walk.
Perhaps no activity is as basic to our existence as the walk to the grocery store. Pre-agricultural people walked constantly in search of food. As we began to urbanize five thousand years ago, people walked to centralized markets to exchange goods and services, and also news and greetings.
What would it take in this day and age to relaunch the independent butcher, baker, greengrocer, cheese shop, bike shop, toy store, stationery store, hardware and appliance repair?
Maybe this is why the walk to the grocery store remains a powerful incentive today to get out of the house for a walk, even when the weather is no good for other forms of recreation. The need for a missing grocery item has motivated many a walk to the store, at least in places where city planning still allows it to occur.
Jan Gehl, in Cities for People, and Charles Montgomery in Happy City make the case that, not only retail destinations, but also retail-lined routes, in fact cause people to walk farther. As much as we rhapsodize about walking in nature, many people find it more interesting to walk in places with other people. Store fronts and dwellings with friendly, visible facades close to the street are just such a thing to keep our minds busy people-watching, as we walk farther, and more briskly, than we otherwise would.
"The unrelenting segregation of housing from retail that characterized post WWII planning, left many people with no destination for a useful walk."
Not all retail, however, is created equal. To separate stores from the sidewalk with a parking lot, however shallow, is to obstruct the view of the windows and spoil the experience of window shopping. Other inhibiting factors to a window-shopping route are blank walls, HVAC exhausting on the street, and gaudy oversized signage intended for fast-moving drivers.
So, small stores in a walkable neighbourhood provide us with an interesting walk, but what do they get in return? They get the opportunity to fine-tune their stock and their business model through daily face-to-face contact with the surrounding population. The small business owner can get to know the neighbourhood and its inhabitants, its vagaries and its preferences. There is less need for “market research” when you see your clients every day in person.
This is the time-honoured business model that Ottawa’s Draft Official Plan is seeking to re-establish: small, locally owned, possibly locally provisioned stores, patronized by local clientele. Abolishing minimum parking requirements for stores, should help avoid attracting excess vehicles and the unfortunate and ironic phenomenon of people driving long distances to visit a rare walkable neighbourhood.
"Perhaps no activity is as basic to our existence as the walk to the grocery store."
A small-scale pedestrian-oriented pattern of retail gives access to goods and services to residents of all ages and abilities – not just the one family member who is dispatched once a week in a vehicle to try to provision the whole family from the mega-mart.
What would it take in this day and age to relaunch the independent butcher, baker, greengrocer, cheese shop, bike shop, toy store, stationery store, hardware and appliance repair? Not long ago, this was the constellation of businesses that gave towns and urban neighbourhoods their character.
Maybe the answer is to build around the useful walk.
~ JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa.