What books and walkable communities have in common
Books are old-fashioned. So are walkable neighborhoods and cities. And they both have an enduring magic that will never cease to be valuable even as they fall out of popular fashion. Hang with me here.
“We need not fear the future elimination of the book"
In the realm of communication, technological change has afforded us ever more ways of conveying ideas, telling stories, and absorbing information. Nowadays we’ve got Instagram and Youtube and podcasts and blogs and Twitter and our phones ding when the president does something attention-grabbing. All this “progress" kind of makes books and the written word seem quaint.
But Nobel laureate (writer and painter) Hermann Hesse, writing in 1930, has some thoughts on the enduring value of the book: "Even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. To Hesse, new communication inventions will only underscore the function and timelessness of the written word.
"Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity."
The "world of books” comes to us not exactly as a “gift from nature” but certainly seems fine-tuned to work with our nature as storytellers, and to show its strength over time. Communication isn’t a human invention, but the written word is.
Hesse continues: “It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself."
What’s this have to do with cities?
I see a parallel in the way we develop our cities. Namely, that the walkable, diverse, human-scale settlement holds a parallel magic for the human experience.
As with communication, community is not unique in nature to humans, but cities are. And the city has traditionally been a place for getting around mostly on foot, for interacting regularly with other members of the community.
Around the same time that Hesse wrote about the rise of cinema and radio, the automobile was also ascendant. And, as we know, that bit of technological “progress" would soon define the development patterns of North America. We shunned proximity on foot –and in effect community—in favor of getting middle- and upper-class folks a half-acre lawn and a car commute.
Instead of dwelling on the realities of car-based cities, let’s go back to the human-centric version of human settlement for a minute.
Jane Jacobs points out the beauty, interestingness, safety, and social capital of human-scale environments in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Eyes on the street,” for example, offer greater safety than seclusion does. Mixed primary uses, density, and varieties of building ages create “effective economic pools of use.” Casual public interactions become far less likely outside of a walkable urban context, but they have enormous social, economic, and creative value.
Jacobs also notes that children assimilate more easily in the rich sidewalk life of cities. Walkable, human scale settlements remain the only place wholly suitable to getting around comfortably and safely as an 8-year-old or an 88-year-old. To borrow words from Verdunity's CEO Kevin Shepherd, these are the settings where three (or four!) generations of a family can all reasonably and comfortably live within walking distance of one another.
As Felix Landry and I discussed on a recent podcast, human-scale neighborhoods are more socially sustainable because they can flex to new uses and configurations over time, developing character and becoming lovable. (And in comparison to the high-intensity, car-dependent development patterns that have dominated since the ‘50s, they are also more environmentally and economically sustainable, as they place less stress on local ecosystems and use far fewer resources per person.)
Christopher Alexander, architect and design theorist, has made a life’s work out of observing the patterns of the built environment that make humans comfortable, incubate social vibrancy, and foster a sense of belonging. You could spend months reading through all of his work, but when it comes down to it—at the scale of a room, building, block, neighborhood, or city—proportions matter. In particular, we respond well to spaces scaled to our natural movements. Anyone would struggle to feel at home in a warehouse, regardless of the furnishings. We also have a hard time (as humans) adjusting to a street designed to prioritize oversized fire trucks and Escalades, whether it’s flanked with sidewalk and benches or not. Beyond that, we sacrifice the crucial human interaction when we prioritize automobiles over people. Even destinations within walking distance become uninviting trips when placed in the context of streets and lots designed for cars and trucks.
Personally, I find myself feeling a little less human on days I don’t get to take one or more long walks. Beyond the social encounters (all the neighbors I know I met just be being out on walks, and that’s even how my wife and I found the for-rent sign on house we just moved into), the convenience of walking to the grocery store, the frugality of not driving to work or almost anywhere else, the health benefits of walking, there is just something about a good walk that improves the way I feel and my outlook on life.
The beauty of a walkable environment is that it enables that experience regularly, even for just carrying out everyday tasks. The tragedy (or one of them) of the auto-dependent environment is that it eliminates those benefits for everyone. Additionally, it makes walking to a bus stop or grocery store a dangerous and incredibly time-consuming burden for anyone unable to afford a car.
At a certain point along our pursuit of the new thing that’s going to change the way we live, it becomes clear just what we give up in exchange. Hermann Hesse argued almost a hundred years before the Age of Streaming that despite our devising new ways of communicating, learning, and entertaining ourselves, the book would endure. That we'd actually better understand the value of books in the face of new technologies.
In the world of city-building, we too have a timeless invention that makes possible a richer human experience. The walkable city (or town) has survived for thousands of years, allowing humans to thrive alongside one another and participate in a shared story. Its value is increasingly evident the more we seek shiny, new alternatives.
I don’t propose we stop seeking new ways to make our lives better. However, I think we should work harder to maintain a clear vision of what “better” really means. We would do well when planning, designing, and (re)developing our communities to consider those parts of our built environment which have spanned the ages and contributed most to our “history and consciousness of self.”