I developed my love of walkable cities and neighborhoods in college, criss-crossing Greenwich Village to sample the best of New York University’s dining hall offerings — here for the salad bar, there for the waffles, yonder for the finest cereal selection an 18-year-old could hope to find at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. Later, when I started drinking, I appreciated the city’s pedestrian-friendliness even more, thankful for all-night subways and well-lit avenues that guided me and my girlfriends home, feet aching and trailing glitter, in the early morning hours. And as I pursued my career and got married and acquired a dog and became the kind of person who knows how much good olive oil should cost, I always prized one factor above all others when it came to deciding where to rent, where to buy, or where to move: walkability.
It isn’t just that walkability presents a change and a challenge compared to the sprawling, car-centric North Texas suburb where I grew up, although for a contrarian teenager that was certainly part of the initial appeal of urban life. It was also the ability to see and be seen, not in a prissy socialite kind of way, but in a human way. I am an extrovert. Interacting with other people — something as simple as talking about the weather with a barista — energizes me. I’m the type of person who smiles at strangers on the street and tells the woman waiting at the crosswalk with me that I love her boots. For me, missing these kinds of opportunities isn’t just kind of a bummer. It actually puts me in a funk.
In fact, I live for what Vox’s David Roberts calls “spontaneous social mixing” in this piece about making friends as an adult. When adult Americans do what adult Americans are expected to do — get married, have kids, go to work — we often isolate ourselves into the American dream: a place in the ‘burbs. Writes Roberts: “There's nothing fated or inevitable about each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it.”
I’m happy to schedule time with established friends, of course, but we can’t pluck buddies out of thin air. And since I’m not interested in having children and I work freelance (from home!), I miss out on the kid-rearing and water-cooler socializing that brings many adults together on a regular basis. I have to go out my front door and down to my local bar or the dog park for that proximal space and those shared experiences that turn acquaintances into friends.
Unsurprisingly, actual science backs up my appreciation for walkable areas; extroverts are drawn to city centers. In Austin, walking down to my local North Loop pub after work turned into the opportunity to officiate my favorite bartender’s wedding. In Dallas, calling Deep Ellum home connected me with neighbors who worked together to build urban gardens after long-shared commiserations about the lack of local green space. In the East Bay, I could walk to a friend’s house for a weekly political action meet-up and hear from local representatives and activists about ways to improve not just my city or my area, but my block.
I’m privileged to be an extrovert who can spend the extra money and, often, the extra time it takes to secure a spot in a more densely populated area, and I’m not here to shade the suburbs. Cities like San Francisco, where I live today, are plainly unaffordable for all but the most affluent among us, making it harder for systemically marginalized communities (of color, of disabled folks, of LGBTQ folks) to settle in spontaneously social proximity. Austin, the city my heart still calls home, has seen its black population decline rapidly over the last couple of decades as folks move to the suburbs for more affordable housing and, increasingly, more cultural diversity.
I’m lucky to be able make walkability a priority. It costs more, and demands more of my body — stairs, escalators, curbs and sidewalks can be impossible to navigate using a wheelchair, or when using crutches or a walker or a cane. But there are costs, too, of finding oneself in a less pedestrian-friendly locale relying on ride-shares or scrambling for a car payment.
There’s no reason that suburbs can’t incorporate some tenets of walkability to make those areas a little friendlier — no reason that “suburban” and “walkable” have to seem so mutually exclusive. Combining walkabilty with affordability would go a long way to improving livability, putting introverts and extroverts alike in geographic harmony.