Our Views: Walkable cities shape future

Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden placed a priority on creating more walking and bike paths for the city during his first two terms as mayor, and we hope those goals continue to shape his third term.

This thought came to mind last week as we traveled downtown on a weekday evening and spotted many young runners using the downtown district as their route. Cheerful, energetic and attired in the best sportswear, the athletes appeared to represent a prized demographic for cities with a desire to grow and prosper: the young, educated and ambitious.

These young professionals, dubbed the creative class by urban planner Richard Florida, aren’t the only people who prize a walkable city. In increasing numbers, recent empty-nesters — parents who have raised their children and now have more disposable income — want to live in walkable cities, too. These older Americans can be great boosters of a local economy, if they can be attracted to live in a place that offers what they want.

Increasing, their wish list includes not only access to quality health care and cultural life, but walkable neighborhoods and convenient mass transit, too.

That’s one of many conclusions in “Walkable City,” a new book by planner Jeff Speck that charts the walkable cities movement.

Baton Rouge residents have a long way to go in building a community that makes walking and biking easy. Cars are the transportation of choice for most people, and sidewalks and biking paths in many parts of the city remain an afterthought. Baton Rouge is far from alone in this misguided policy, Speck tells readers of his new book.

“In the small and midsized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse,” Speck laments. “This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decisionmaking disconnected from planning.”

As a result, writes Speck, “a small number of forward-thinking cities are gobbling up the lion’s share of (young professionals) and empty-nesters with the wherewithal to live wherever they want, while most midsized cities go hungry.”

America’s large cities, for the most part, have embraced the concept of walkable neighborhoods, writes Speck. The next battleground for the cause will be in midsized communities such as Baton Rouge, he suggests. Here’s how Speck puts it:

“We planners are counting on these typical places, because America will be finally ushered into ‘the urban century’ not by its few exceptions, but by a collective movement among its everyday cities to do once again what cities do best, which is to bring people together — on foot.”