Consider what Tessa Thomas wrote in “Gym won’t fix it” (The
Guardian, 28 October 2003):
While there is still a consensus that inactivity rather
than overeating is responsible for the current obesity
epidemic, the terms of the debate are shifting. Exercise
as most people understand it is no longer the main focus.
It is activity that matters, says Rigby. While the
difference may seem a matter of mere semantics, in
practice it is the crucial distinction between going
somewhere special to get and keep fit … and
living a life that does it for you … .
"We have lost so much physical activity from our everyday
lives that an hour or two in the gym a week can't possibly
Purposeful exercise is “active transport”. This is when
the human being goes to errands or commutes to work either
on foot, by bike or using public transportation. Public
transport is considered “active” since you need to walk to
the bus stop or metro station, and walk again after you
Active transport requires the urban structure to be
designed so that walking and cycling trips are convenient,
pleasant and safe. (From Healthyplaces.org).
So now, let’s visit the ubiquitous housing clusters that
have little or no efficient public transport and that are
too far away from shopping and errands to make walking
What can we do to salvage these places?
First, the builder and/or the municipality should be
responsible for providing public transport for all housing
that is built more than one kilometer (5/8 of a mile) away
from shopping centers.
Therefore, in housing clusters that are too far from
shopping, free shuttle service should be provided to
residents with stops at walkable distances. Residents in
turn should be encouraged to decrease the number of car
trips per week, for their own health, for saving on car
costs and for reducing carbon emissions.
The idea of a free shuttle from housing cluster to shopping
centers is not revolutionary and has been applied
successfully in a number of communities.
Other strategies can encourage residents to walk or
bicycle, even along boring roads, to errands that might be
beyond the practical distance. With good amenities along
the way, even a walk of two miles to a shopping center can
be done enjoyably. The municipality should install benches
under shade trees or bus-stop-like roofing.
Real improvement in walking conditions will come when a
municipality adopts a Complete Street policy, in which all
modes of transportation must be considered when there is a
street reconstruction project. Complete Streets are
streets for everyone. They are designed and operated to
enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians,
bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and
A complete-street policy would allow a municipality to
apply pro-pedestrian zoning with each new road
construction project. Pro-pedestrian zoning enhances the
walking experience through measures like requiring
first-floor retail shops or windows on buildings along
pedestrian routes. Compare this to walking by sprawling
parking lots, windowless big box stores and dead walls
that enclose housing clusters.
Second, community zoning regulations must be softened, in
order to allow for small but necessary commerce within the
housing cluster or at its edge. Most areas with sprawling
suburban housing have wasted space that could be set aside
for a “general store” concession. If the oil and airlines
industries can be subsidized, then why not allow for a
socially responsible shopping facility to receive a
temporary subsidy, until the locals see it in their best
interest avoid a car trip and shop locally?
This is not a classic convenience store, with mainly junk
food and beer. In order to gain the concession, the
general store owner would have to sell true necessities:
milk, eggs, breads, toiletries, diapers, greeting cards,
newspapers, etc. This concession would be equipped with
benches, or even a few tables and chairs, so that it could
become a community gathering place. This general store
would not have a parking lot.
Residents would be rewarded with a purposeful walk as well
as a chance to mingle with neighbors, who they would
otherwise never come into contact with, since cluster
dwellers usually leave their homes in cars directly from
“Normal” used to be empty sidewalks, an image of solitude.
This new normal would be the image of neighbors walking on
sidewalks pulling their wheeled shopping caddies. A
non-place would be converted into a convivial space.
The transition would not be immediate. Attorney Peter Owen
moved to Arlington, Virginia, a city that made the
transition from car dominated suburb into “America’s most
walkable suburb” (see
www.JayWalljasper.com, April 6, 2015).
Still old habits die hard, Owen admits. “It took me about
four months of living here to stop driving in my car to
the grocery store, even though I lived just a few blocks
away.” Owen still owns a car, but says it stays in the
garage most of the time.
My third recommendation depends on the resilience of the
neighbors and includes several possibilities.
The idea is to create a gathering place that becomes a
destination for a good walk.
For example, the community could establish a book/magazine
exchange. The exchange begins with a call for donations of
reading materials from local residents. Then, folks can
arrive and take something in exchange for leaving
something else. “Here’s my Harry Potter and I’ll take your
National Geographic children’s magazine”. The result could
be more reading and less TV.
This is economic activity but no money exchanged. With no
cash register, managing the book exchange simplifies. It
can be operated by volunteers from the neighborhood, or
the cluster can pay a salary to a local teen. Naturally,
there would be benches at the book exchange so that it
would also function as a place for neighbors to exchange
Or instead of the book exchange, the community might choose
a non-profit café-juice bar, also run by the neighbors.
Nothing elaborate. Most housing clusters could easily
rearrange space in order to fit in a small café with five
or six tables.
I live in a town where both café and book exchange were
combined. An association was formed, and the city happily
gave them an area of blighted non-space to be revived. It
has now become a place of conviviality.
Other possibilities are numerous, including: a community
garden (within or near the cluster), a bicycle repair
station, a tool-lending “library”, a place to display the
work of local artists. The idea is to use space cleverly
to create more purposeful destinations that can be reached
Without major retrofitting, housing clusters can be
transformed not only into walkable places but also into a
caring community, by re-purposing the excess sprawling
space within and by creating active transport links to
shopping, train stations and recreation areas.
In reference to the transformation of Arlington, Virginia,
Jay Walljasper provides us with a revealing quote:
“It’s dramatically different walking here than in the
1990s,” says Dennis Leach, Arlington’s director of
transportation, who lived here for years before joining
the county staff. “You see all these people in places that
used to be nowhere. It shows that if you do the
infrastructure and land use right, you can provide people
more viable transportation options and good places to walk,
which has benefits for social equity, health and a sense
The "complete-street" philosophy. My municipality converted
a two-lane street into one lane and gave the extra
space to pedestrians. Result: two sidewalk cafés and
a family-oriented promendade area, as well as an
against-the-traffic bike lane.