Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Walkable Neighbourhoods and Avoiding the Commute

Since I told my coworkers that I intend to leave my current job and the Northwest Territories they have been asking me what I might like to do or where I might want to live, etc. In one of these conversations I remarked that in an ideal world I want to live within walking distance of where I work because I'd like to continue to walk to work every day. The colleagues I was talking to laughed at my desire and one replied, "Good luck!"

At first I thought that they were laughing at my perceived naivety of this idealistic vision. I didn't say anything but then it dawned on me that they may not have been questioning me, but the types of environments that exist out there.

A pedestrian-hostile environment and...

a residential neighbourhood in a urban area.

I have a couple of friends who live in Toronto and walk to work. Their downtown apartments are within a hop, skip and a jump of their downtown offices. Their desire is entirely manageable and practical. In fact driving would probably take longer and be a greater hassle. Presently I live in a small town in the Northwest Territories. The walk from my apartment to the office and "downtown" is about 15-20 minutes. I've done it in the rain, and in -40 degrees Celsius and it has never been particularly difficult. When it's really cold my hands hurt through the two pairs of gloves when I'm about 5 minutes away from my destination though.

However, one of my realizations is that small town life is not really for me, yet there are very few places outside of major metropolitan cities and small towns where what I want is readily available. I grew up in the suburbs and it took about fifteen minutes of walking just to get out of my residential neighbourhood to the nearest shopping or arterial road. Of course, public transit is meant to expand the walkable space for a commuter. After a 10-minute walk and a 10-minute bus ride I can be in a whole different place.

I wonder if in the suburbs or smaller cities if transit is robust enough to make it work for my ideals. The Toronto Star had an interesting piece about a Brampton family going car-less. You may remember one of the subjects, Kevin Montgomery, was a candidate for Brampton city council last year. People like the Montgomery's are making it work and have many positive consequences, but one of the great challenges for me is I don't know where I'll be working next, but I know I don't want to be a car-commuter.

Of course commuting is only one side of the equation, the other is finding a place to live. I grew up my whole life in the suburbs in a detached two-storey home. To me it is so normal, and so typical that I have a hard time not imagining my life in something like that, even if it is a rented house rather than one I own. I have never lived in an apartment building or condominium so it's an experience I have no frame of reference for. I recently read this post on Granola Shotgun, in it the author talks about the situation in San Francisco. Desirable, urbane, walkable neighbourhoods are the most valuable pieces of real-estate in North America and it doesn't much matter if you're talking about San Francisco, Toronto, or the suburbs around them. Even if I find a workplace not on the edge of the community in an office park, who says I could afford any of the homes around it? Complete neighbourhoods are more expensive and gentrification is pushing out lower, and increasingly middle-class people.

I believe in living where you work, that one should aspire to laying roots in a community. I think long commutes are detrimental to one's mental, physical and social health, but I understand how people end up in these situations with a two-hour commute spanning huge distances and places transformed into bedroom communities. My coworkers may have been right to chuckle at my naivety and idealism given the structure of our urban environments as very few ever get to live in these places. 

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