There’s no better way to understand the place you live than to simply get outside and walk its streets. You see how your neighbors go about their needs, how they interact with each other, and where they face difficulties in negotiating the environment. And you can take it all in and reflect on it in a way that you can’t possibly do from behind a windshield.
When Jessica Ryals of Fort Myers, Florida worked for the local Lee County government, she found that a number of people in the position to make decisions about street design—elected officials and planning staff—were having a hard time seeing the value in things like ensuring that streets are accommodating and safe for all users, not just those in vehicles. It seemed like a luxury to them, an additional expense that might or might not satisfy a cost-benefit calculation. This despite the fact that greater Fort Myers, an area dominated by car-centric development and massive stroads, ranks the 8th most dangerous metro area for pedestrian deaths in the whole country (according to Smart Growth America’s 2019 Dangerous by Design report).
Ryals started looking for resources that would make the case for better design in terms that community leaders understood—financial terms. She became aware of Strong Towns through local activists working to promote complete streets, and began using Strong Towns materials to help cities and communities in Southwest Florida understand the dollars-and-cents case for retrofitting auto-oriented areas into places that support pedestrian vitality. Says Ryals,
“In Southwest Florida, we have a high growth rate, and people tend to look at a new McDonald’s or a new housing subdivision as “great for the economy.” It’s hard to get people to see past the initial growth stage. How are they really going to move around in these places? How are they going to interact?”
Taking the Classroom to the Streets
Ryals soon took a faculty position at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she teamed up with Jessica Marcolini to teach a class called the University Colloquium. Required of all students at FGCU, regardless of major, the Colloquium is designed around hands-on service learning, and seeks to instill an understanding of sustainability in the broad sense—not just ecological, but the whole gamut of ways in which students’ communities are or are not environmentally, socially, economically and financially sustainable. “We had a really unique opportunity to bring something like infrastructure and community planning, which touches everybody’s lives, into the class,” they told me.
Marcolini and Ryals developed a program of walking audits that they incorporated into the curriculum for their course. Students read about urban design principles and ideas, and, among other resources, were shown the series of videos that Strong Towns made to introduce the Curbside Chat, our signature presentation on the resilience and financial productivity of the traditional, walkable development pattern in contrast to the fragility of the post-WWII suburban model of development.
Having discussed the Curbside Chat concepts and the elements of a resilent, human-scaled city—such as safe, slow streets, fine-grained development and walkability—Ryals, Marcolini and their students took their classroom to the streets. Visiting key locations in Fort Myers, students were instructed to make observations and take notes on such things as:
What are the transportation options? How adequate, safe, and/or comfortable are they?
How are people getting around? Where do they seem to be going?
What kind of green / eco-friendly infrastructure is in place?
Can people walk to obtain healthy food in their neighborhood? Is there a grocery store nearby?
These and many other questions helped them better understand the ways urban design shapes our behavior. Their classroom discussions involving Strong Towns concepts helped them look at the environment around them without taking it for granted, but with a critical eye to the assumptions under which it was designed. It empowered them to see how their city serves (or fails to serve) different types of people in different situations, and how its value and quality of life may (or may not) hold up over the long term.
Ryals and Marcolini put this poster together to present their work at a conference for the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). The poster offers more insight into the Walking Audits program:
From Understanding the Urban Environment to Improving It
Throughout the semester, the teaching duo worked on obtaining grants to further develop the program. Ryals has since left FGCU to work for the University of Florida’s agricultural extension service, IFAS. There, she works with Florida counties on developing more resilient local food systems.
Marcolini continues to teach at FGCU, and is pursuing an exciting new angle: for the summer of 2019, she has applied for grant funding to work with a team of 3 students to go out and do tactical urbanism projects—not only observing the urban environment, but starting to understand how small, simple actions can profoundly shape it. Under Marcolini’s proposal, students will work with a nonprofit called Streets Alive of Southwest Florida, as well as the Lee County government, to select sites that have a track record of being deadly for people on foot. They will research, design, and implement tactical traffic-calming interventions at these locations—things such as temporary curb extensions or crosswalks.
The students will get to collect data and see firsthand whether their small, temporary changes influence driver and pedestrian behavior positively. If so, they will prepare a case to make to local officials to implement the changes permanently.
Urban design concepts can seem abstract and theoretical, but there’s nothing quite like getting out on the streets of your own community to make those concepts come alive. That same insight is the idea behind Jane’s Walks, which celebrate the visionary urban activist and scholar Jane Jacobs by taking people all over the world on walking tours of their own communities to see how some of the timeless principles that Jacobs wrote about apply to everyday experience. [Editor’s note: As of this writing, we’re two days away from Jane Jacobs’s birthday—May 4th—and there may be a Jane’s walk happening near you this weekend. Find out more here.]
Says Marcolini, when asked about the power of these activities to lead to real understanding and, ultimately, real change:
“When you connect [urban design] to something people do every day, like get in their car and drive to the store, in their own community, it becomes real to them. And that understanding becomes the start of a ripple.”