I don’t know who came up with the idea; probably some urban hipster. Figure out those goods and services you need to survive, ditch your car, and then see how far you have to walk to arrive at those places that meet your basic needs. Put it all together, divide by the unsquare root of the address of the nearest tattoo parlor, or something like that, and you arrive at something called the Walkability Index.
The Walkability Index makes a big claim. It purports to communicate to anyone who is interested just how livable and eco-friendly your community is. The higher the Walkability Index, the easier it is to walk to those places such as the post office, the dry cleaners, the grocery store, or the bank.
By that standard, the Walkability Index for my little corner of Westerville, Ohio is dismal. For what it’s worth, the score for my house and my neighborhood is 18. This means that I am heavily dependent on the automobile. The nearest grocery store is several miles away. You have to drive to get anywhere, a fact that must perpetually frustrate the proponents of green living.
Ironically, it is the presence of living, green things that makes it so difficult to arrive at anywhere of note. I am surrounded by trees. A fifteen-minute walk out my front door through the woods brings me to a Metro park, where I find still more trees, and lovely formal gardens. A five-minute walk out my back door brings me to a lake, and the sight of blue herons and sailboats, and to a breathtaking view of some of the most gorgeous sunsets you will ever see.
But the Walkability Index folks are correct. I can’t walk to the post office or the dry cleaners.
I thought about the Walkability Index again last weekend, which I spent in Manhattan with my wife and oldest daughter. My daughter attends graduate school is neighboring New Jersey, and she heads into the big city whenever she can.
Me? I have a love/hate relationship with Manhattan. I find it exhilarating. I find it exhausting. I love the crowds, the bustle, the hectic pace—for the first half hour I’m there. Then I’m ready to leave.
More correctly, I’m ready to escape. I feel trapped. I feel claustrophobic. I want to scream. All of which suggests that a 400-square-foot efficiency apartment in Greenwich Village may not be in my future.
Perhaps it is not surprising that my favorite part of Manhattan is Central Park. I suspect that Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s architect, designed it for claustrophobic shriekers like me. No matter where you are in Manhattan—up in Harlem or down in the Battery, or way over on the far east or west sides—you are never more than a half hour subway ride from Central Park. I like to think of it as a little outpost of serenity and sanity.
But once you’re there, the Walkability Index is shot to hell. There isn’t a post office or grocery store anywhere in sight. There are only trees and lakes, the smell of flowers in bloom, the sound of birdsong. I have little doubt that this place that is noplace has kept millions of people from, as they say, going postal. You can take the horse-driven carriage ride if you want. I like to walk. I like to take my time, and breathe in the air, and remember what it’s like to not scurry toward a destination.
My wife and I dropped off my daughter in New Jersey and headed home to Ohio to our inconvenient house in our non-walkable neighborhood. We talked about future plans on the long drive home. Our house is now too big for a couple whose kids have flown the nest, and we plan to put it on the market next spring. We’ll try to sell it and move to a smaller place in the city, closer to work, closer to all those modern conveniences that will theoretically improve the quality of our lives, and will most certainly improve those factors that comprise our new neighborhood’s Walkability Index.
But my guess is that we’ll never see a blue heron in the wild in the middle of Columbus, Ohio. We won’t be able to stroll out our back door and watch a regatta.
It occurs to me, in my iconoclastic, unhip orneriness, that the story of God’s redemptive work as recounted in the Bible begins in a garden and ends by a river. One of the common threads of the unfallen and the restored creation is that they would both score poorly on the Walkability Index.
I probably shouldn’t make too much of it. Between the garden and the river we have human history, and human history cannot possibly be reduced to a Nature Good/City Bad dichotomy.
I appreciate the post office and the grocery store as much as the next guy, and I’m a fan of the amenities offered in a “walkable” neighborhood. It’s one of the reasons why we plan to move. All I know is that no one ever seems to tack on “maples and oaks in October” to the list of dry cleaners and banks, and perhaps my discomfort with these glib, urban metrics is simply a recognition of amenities that cannot be measured.
What is the worth of a beautiful sunset over the water? How does one ascribe a numerical value to the wondrous sight of a goofy, long-legged bird with beautiful plumage? I have long experienced the simple joys of walking to nowhere. I will miss them.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.