Where do you see yourself 10 years after graduation? If all goes well, you’ll find yourself well-established in a fulfilling career, leaving your education days behind you. But everyone has heard the people in their lives reminisce about the good old days, often in reference to undergrad. To reframe the question, 10 years down the road, what do you think you will miss the most about college? Is it the varied schedule and reliable structure to your day, or the easy access to food of questionable nutritious value? Will it be the friends you made among your peers, or the mentor you found in a teacher? All of these and more can be covered under one banner: walkability. That’s right, you’re going to miss the walking.
With some exceptions, this is probably the only time in your life you will live in a safe, walkable community. Simply put, walkability refers to how friendly an area is to pedestrian traffic, covering all factors that might promote walking and public transit over traveling by car. This means building spaces centered around the needs of humans rather than the needs of cars. At college, most aspects of a fulfilling life are conveniently accessible without disturbing a healthy work-life balance.
There is a clear difference between college life and both life before and after college. There is no hour-long commute since everything one might need — classes, library, campus store, cafeteria, campus job, friends, public spaces — is all within walking distance. For many students, college offers unprecedented freedom to go where they like whenever they like, a benefit to go along with the newfound independence and responsibility of this stage of life.
This sort of living situation and lifestyle certainly sounds appealing, but what are the actual benefits of living in a walkable community beyond pure convenience? It’s not as lazy as it sounds. Walkability has a direct impact on environmental and public health, like limiting pollution from automobiles — improved air quality is a plus for both the environment and people’s lungs — and promoting transportation alternatives that facilitate regular exercise such as biking, running to catch a ride on public transit, or, of course, walking. College is a good time to get in shape not only because you are close to the prime of your life, but also because walkable campuses promote an active lifestyle.
Walkable communities are also generally more accessible and more diverse. Poorly maintained or even nonexistent sidewalks often exclude people with disabilities. Centering the design of an area around the concept of walkability reveals many anti-walkability and anti-accessibility problems that may have been previously overlooked, such as dangerous traffic patterns, unprotected or nonexistent bike lanes, and even poorly placed utility poles that might prevent a wheelchair from getting down a sidewalk.
A key feature of walkable communities is the presence of communal spaces, where people can come together and freely interact. Walkability increases connectivity and creates a more diverse community by offering a desirable lifestyle, opening a space to a wider range of people and creating a space for people to come together.
Sadly, this experience isn’t particularly common in America. Most places are governed by a different set of building rules and policies than many college campuses, usually to the detriment of a walkable lifestyle. Rural areas have a lot of walkability potential, given the small scale of many towns, but the low population density combined with limited infrastructure like sidewalks or mass transit leaves walking a less-than-viable transportation option. Suburbs are about as anti-walkability as you can get. Besides their inefficient population density and the fact that they can only exist due to government subsidies, suburbs enjoy little access to public transit, limited community space, and zero mixed-use property zoning, depriving residents of any reason to exit their homes in anything but an automobile. Suburbs are literally designed to minimize foot traffic.
The next best alternative to college life is probably the city, but walkability is a rare find. Even when you can find a walkable community to live in, a persistent problem you’ll encounter is money. It is incredibly expensive to enjoy something approximating the benefits of college living; it’s almost like paying tuition all over again. Look at the West Village neighborhood in Manhattan, New York, one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. With its easy access to mass transit, variety of restaurants and stores, and its quiet streets and beautiful architecture that gives people a reason to go outside and mingle, the West Village is a perfect walkable community open to everyone that can afford its astronomical price tag.
Why is it so difficult to spread the benefits of walkability around the country at affordable prices? Public policy. As with the case of the previously mentioned government-subsidized construction of the terribly inefficient suburb, cities often pass legislation directly opposed to building up walkable communities. San Francisco, considered to be one of the most walkable cities in the whole country, is infamous for its high home prices and large homeless population, problems only worsened by its refusal to approve the construction of high-density housing. Laws about jaywalking and loitering are repeatedly used to discriminate, favor cars at the expense of actual people, and serve only to inhibit the cultivation of a healthy community that can take full advantage of the walkable city they might find themselves in.
There is more to be said about car-centric culture or about how to effectively address the housing crisis. However, those are complicated conversations, and an important first step is determining what you want the end goal to be. Be aware of your habits, be aware of how your space is designed to promote or inhibit a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle, and maybe change the way you vote on certain measures to promote a more walkable community. You can’t go back to the good old days, and there’s still plenty to miss about college, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the benefits of college living outside of those four short years.