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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Living, learning, walking
April 4, 2010 - 9:20pm

In my perambulations of the internet, I came across an action plan for a neighborhood called Snyder, in Amherst NY. I don't know Snyder at all, and I know Amherst only as the location of the largest SUNY campus, but an appendix to the plan caught my attention. It's called "Ten Keys to Walkable/Livable Communities", and it's attributed to Dan Burden of Walkable Communities, Inc.

Now community walkability is, to my mind, one of the salient elements of sustainable geography. Walkability, obviously, decreases the need for motorized transit, whether efficient (public, shared) or extravagant (private, private). But walkability also translates into happiness-inducing. And any combination of decreased transit and increased happiness has to be more sustainable than what we have now.

There's nothing particularly surprising in the "ten keys", but they do seem to touch at least most of the bases:

  • A compact, lively town center, including a variety of stores which offer local products and services, and have a distinct personality or character;
  • Many linkages among neighborhoods (including walkways, trails and roadways);
  • Low speed streets;
  • Neighborhood schools and parks;
  • Public places for all (restrooms, sitting places, drinking fountains);
  • Convenient, safe and easy street crossings;
  • Inspiring and well-maintained public space (trees, native species, drought-resistant plants, minimal use of water if scarce);
  • Mutually beneficial land use and transportation (urban infill, integral placement of mixed-use buildings, a built environment of human scale);
  • Celebrated public space and public life; and
  • Many people walking (no rules against loitering; lingering in public places is encouraged and celebrated).

This set of attributes doesn't apply to too many places around Backboro. It does remind me of a couple of 1960's/70's vintage planned communities I've seen (or, at least, of their aspirations). But it does remind me of the more attractive campuses I've been on.

I've been on a lot of college campuses over the years. Somewhere over 200, for sure. Some of them are pretty ugly, but some are among the most beautiful built environments I've ever experienced. And, when I stop to think in such terms, there's a definite correlation. The campuses which were built for pedestrians aren't always exquisite, but the worst of those is -- to my recollection -- notably more attractive than the nicest campuses built with motorists in mind. Human scale is a large part of it, as is local and distinct personality or character.

(One thing I've noticed at Greenback is that while the older parts of our campus are highly walkable, the newer parts privilege motorists over pedestrians. Maybe that's part of the reason that no one likes the newer parts of campus.)

For commuter colleges (and here I claim no experience; Greenback is by no means a commuter school), the way to achieve walkability might be to locate the campus in small pieces, forming a virtual community physically present at or near the places where the commuter clientele already is -- admittedly, establishing connections and distinct character is more difficult under such circumstances.

But for residential or urban schools, the ideal of walkable/livable communities seems pretty close to the one about optimal living/learning environments. A little mental translation is required, but another appendix ("Proposed Traditional Neighborhood Business District Zoning") comes close to providing an analogue for how even a large city (or multiversity) could be composed of mutually abutting walkable communities. Tie these academic neighborhoods all together with clean, convenient and efficient shared transit, and the university really might be able to model sustainable development to society at large.

Reshaping our campus communities will certainly be more work than setting out recycling containers or installing low-flow toilets. But the energy and educational benefits are more than proportionally larger. And, at some point, we need to go beyond "turn the lights off when you leave the room."


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