Last Christmas, my partner Chris and I decided that, after years of pining and semi-weekly “just for fun!” Humane Society visits, we would finally take the plunge and get our first dog. We promised ourselves we would take it slow and really consider our options before we adopted our new baby—we certainly didn’t want to rush into anything.
And then, of course, six days later we went to buy cat food at a Petsmart where a rescue group happened to have set up shop for the afternoon*, and we fell in love with the very first puppy we saw.
Zozo was a 25 pound lab/husky/who-the-hell-knows mix with speckled feet, a white star across his chest, and one of the most mellow temperaments I’d ever encountered in a four month old dog. The rescue said he would probably top out around 70 pounds, and might need “a little” more exercise than your typical puppy because of his size. Both of these things were wild underestimates, but we love him very much anyway.
As a Strong Towns advocate, I believe one of the most powerful things you do can do to make your neighborhood financially stronger is to simply take a walk and keep an eye out for places where you can make a small bet. But getting Zozo took my daily walking habit to a whole new level—and not just because Chris and I now spend a collective two hours a day tromping around our neighborhood with a sniffy little goblin. Here are four ways that walking your dog—or a loaner pup from your local rescue group—can give you a unique insight into how your place can get a little more resilient.
1. Welcoming Human Disorder—and Canine Disorder.
Strong Towns introduced me to the concept of “forgiving design”—and the idea that our neighborhood streets should be designed to forgive pedestrian and cyclist mistakes (which aren’t likely to kill anyone) far more than they’re designed to forgive driver mistakes (which do tend to kill people). When you design a neighborhood street with a deep shoulder and a narrow sidewalk with no trees, for instance, your design forgives the occasional driver who gets distracted by his cell phone and veers out of his lane; he’ll only strike the curb, and likely survive his crash. But that design is not so forgiving to the pedestrian who happens to be walking on the sidewalk just as the distracted driver comes barreling towards her, with no barrier in between them.
Human disorder is a fact of life, whether it happens behind the wheel or on foot. And at Strong Towns, we argue that welcoming the pedestrian variety of chaos actually makes our towns safer and stronger—and inducing drivers to slow down and pay attention in a slightly disorderly environment can save motorist lives, too.
But what about canine disorder?
Let me tell you, guys: It’s one thing to try to cross a five-lane stroad with a short walk signal, as I do almost every day to get to my favorite park in Lafayette Square. It’s another thing to do it with a 60 pound baby with poor impulse control who just has to smell that KFC chicken bone that someone left in the middle of the crosswalk, looming semi-trucks be damned. As an able-bodied young person, I can usually race across Jefferson Ave just fine; not so much with this little dope by my side.
If you’ve never had to navigate your town in a wheelchair, with a stroller, or while lugging a trolley of groceries because you don’t have a car, walking a puppy can be a remarkable way to help you identify the blocks in your neighborhood where someone who faces those challenges might struggle to get around. Make a mental note, and maybe consider staging a pop-up traffic calming demonstration to help your city leaders see just how much safer your place is when you design with human disorder in mind—and while you’re at it, send them a Strong Towns article or two about how those same design shifts can make your city more prosperous, too.
2. Where Are All My Neighbors?
One of the first things you’ll read in any how-to-socialize-a-puppy guide is that you should try to introduce your new family member to as many types of people as possible while he’s still young—grabby little kids and slower-moving seniors, dog-shy strangers who don’t want your pup to jump in their lap, and dog-loving neighbors who will immediately get on the floor and roll around with any pup they meet**.
In a truly strong neighborhood, socializing a dog would be easy: you’d just step outside of your front door. But in our declining neighborhoods, it’s not always that simple.
Walking Zozo has given me a new perspective not just on which blocks of my neighborhood are most populous and lively, but on who populates them—and who doesn’t. Though I think of my block as family-friendly, I’ve realized that I very rarely meet kids playing in the street or even on the sidewalk, and because Zozo doesn’t meet a lot of children either, he’s growing up to be a little nervous around people under the age of 15 or so. The other day, too, I was surprised to see him cower from an older, ASL-speaking deaf man who tried to pet him at a coffee shop; I’m 31, and because my dog hangs out mostly with me and my friends, I realized he’s met virtually no people over the age of 45ish, and very few people with special needs who use their bodies in ways he’s not accustomed to.
I’ve started making a more deliberate effort to take my dog on walks past the retirement community a mile away, as well as the nearby school for the blind. But it’s made me realize, in the process, that my neighborhood doesn’t ace the question on the Strong Towns Strength test that asks whether three generations of the same family could find appropriate homes within a few blocks of one another.
And lately, I’ve been keeping an eye out for neighborhoods where there are kids playing in the street, seniors walking in the park, and people with special needs navigating the streets with ease. In general, these neighborhoods have traffic-calmed streets, but they also tend to be older blocks with a great mix of housing types, from affordable multi-bedrooms big enough to house a family of five to wheelchair-accessible bungalows with residents who have lived there for years. And now I’m asking myself: what’s the next, smallest thing I could do to make my own block a little more amenable to intergenerational and inter-ability living?
3. Seriously, Start Planting Street Trees.
We’ve spilled a lot of ink over the years here at Strong Towns about the incredible power of street trees, which are basically low-cost super-machines that slow cars, increase property values, filter storm water and make walking outdoors 1000% more pleasant for people. You know what else they do? Cool down my dumb black dog. Seriously, this sweet little idiot is so dead-set on pleasing me that he will walk himself to the point of near heat exhaustion if I’m not careful. On super-hot days, there’s a grand total of one neighborhood where I feel comfortable walking him, and it’s the one with the gorgeous mature elms everywhere.
Oh, and those elms also give him a few more squirrels to chase. Zozo would want me to mention that.
4. Streets people care about.
One of the hardest things to communicate about the Strong Towns message, for me, is just how closely the small acts of care we perform in our neighborhoods are correlated with the broad financial prosperity of our towns. I get it: it’s hard to see how picking up litter and painting fire hydrants fun colors will generate the same kind of wealth as that big, top-down economic development project promises to create.
But when I walk Zozo, I notice small things that help me make that case. The block where a developer recently leveled one whole side of the street, where I spend half my energy steering my dog around broken glass. The low-income neighborhood where our local CDC has invested in incrementally improving the housing stock into humble, sturdy homes for renters, where Zozo stops every few feet to sniff flowers that these tenants have lovingly planted in front of their stoops. The family-owned donut shop where Zozo always meets a friendly neighbor who always seems to have a cottage cheese tub full of dog treats secreted in her purse—and the bus stop down the road where people stand, sweating and uncomfortable, under the hot sun, because there’s no budget for a shelter.
The kind of bottom-up, iterative approach we advocate for at Strong Towns demands a kind of attention to small details that are easy to miss if you’re planning your city off of a blueprint rather than based on the real challenges of your neighbors, observed on the ground. If you want to hone your nose for the kind of small, street-level opportunities to make your place stronger, you might consider leashing up your four-footed buddy and taking them along with you.
And if you do, send me pictures.
*We totally knew there was an adoption event that day.