Chuck Marohn is the love child that would have resulted had E.F. Schumacher and Jane Jacobs hooked up at a Minnesota roadhouse. Somewhere between ‘Small is Beautiful’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’ can be found the germ of Strong Towns, our current moment’s most cogent, practical, and necessary response to the problem of urban economics.
— Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City and Walkable City Rules
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Excerpt from Strong Towns: A Bottom Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

Chapter 10: An Intentional Life

I was part of an exchange program sponsored by Rotary International that sent me to Southern Italy back in the spring of 2000. I had never been out of the country, let alone to someplace so different from where I came from. The trip changed my life.

Part of the unique experience of being in Italy was, of course, the food. The team I was with all ate like royalty. Our various Italian hosts brought us out for what felt like a Thanksgiving-scale meal, twice a day, every day. Later in the trip when I was on my own, I ate an entire pizza every day for dinner and, when I learned the word for “French fries,” added an order of them – fried in exquisite olive oil – to my regular diet. I’ve never eaten so much in a six-week period.

The other unique experience for me was walking. I came from a city, in a culture, where a trip longer than a block meant getting into a car. In Italy, we walked everywhere. They all did. It was the easiest way to get around and, since everyone walked most places, the cities were very delightful to walk in.

I’m six feet tall. When I arrived in Italy, I weighed 185 pounds, a weight slightly above where I should have been at that age but by no means overweight. When I left Italy six weeks later, despite eating a bizarre amount of food, I weighed a very healthy 165. I could talk about the value of the Mediterranean diet, but that wasn’t it for me. It was all the walking.

All of us on the trip recognized the same effect. In fact, at one point we were sitting outside at a café watching people walk by when we decided to count the number of them who were obviously overweight. It was a busy street with at least a couple people walking by each minute. We were there about 30 minutes. Total count: zero.

This is not to say that Italians don’t struggle with obesity — official statistics suggest that they increasingly do — nor that the well-tailored clothing they tended to wear didn’t have a slimming effect, but it’s clear that the people living there walked a lot, and that the activity seemed to keep them slimmer than what we were used to experiencing in America.

Upon returning to the Central Minnesota lifestyle I was accustomed to, I not only quickly regained the weight, but over time added even more. Yet, when my family moved from the cul-de-sac to the neighborhood home, I experienced a similar slimming effect. I was not going to the gym to work out, but I was now walking and biking a lot as part of my daily routine. My youngest daughter, Stella, went to a neighborhood school a mile away and we frequently biked there together. The weight started to come down, little by little, despite no real changes to my (notoriously poor) eating habits.

Public health is outside of my area of expertise, but it’s hard not to entertain a connection between the new, experimental human habitat we’ve created and our national crisis with obesity. Heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are all complex health conditions with multiple vectors of causation; I’m not attempting to argue otherwise. Even so, every time I’ve been to the doctor — for myself or with an elderly family member — the medical advice has always included daily physical activity.

The people who lived in my neighborhood a century ago walked multiple blocks — often many miles — as part of their everyday routine. Their ancestors would have done likewise. Today, it’s not only possible but very likely that, without intentional effort, someone living in this same neighborhood would experience only a small fraction of that level of physical activity.

Humans are adapting to a new set of conditions, shifting into habitat we’re not physiologically accustomed to. When we look at other species, we observe Darwin’s merciless insights: Evolution occurs with the survival of those best adapted to changing conditions. What type of human is best adapted to a sedentary lifestyle? It’s unclear, with our unique capacity to countermand death in many instances, how we will evolve under this new set of stresses.

My walking and biking also revealed to me the large number of people who walk because they have no other choice. Traveling at high speeds in my car, these people were mostly invisible to me. Now they are everywhere, and I’m astounded by their struggles.

Walking is a lifestyle for me. When it’s pouring down rain, or when the temperature is below zero as it often is during Minnesota’s winters, I have the choice to drive. Many of my neighbors do not. And as a professional running my own organization, I also have job security. If I decide I’m working from home to avoid nasty weather, there are no negative ramifications. For my neighbors that work multiple part-time jobs at or near minimum wage — and I’ve now met many of them — even being late has ramifications.

Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City, How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, describes a good walk as one that is “useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.” As I ponder how these four elements in what Jeff calls his “General Theory of Walkability” apply to my town, I recognize how despotic for people not in an automobile we have made this formerly walkable place. That the change has come at such a great cost to our financial health and prosperity only makes it more disturbing.

Financial realities demand that we make our cities more walkable, but it seems more than possible that act will also make our lives better in unpredictable ways. As Speck suggests in Walkable City:

We must understand that the walkable city is not just a nice, idealistic notion. Rather, it is a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that we face as a society, problems that daily undermine our nation’s economic competitiveness, public welfare, and environmental sustainability.

In fairly simple and straightforward ways, we can improve the financial health of our cities while improving people’s lives. I’ve come to find that insight deeply satisfying.

Top photo by Ryoji Iwata.