When It Comes to Our Communities: Are We Fair-Minded or Afraid?

Part of my work to make communities nationwide more walkable and livable is to help untangle conflicting values. We love and value families, children, safety, beauty, the outdoors, open space and nature. We want solid home prices, strong schools and neighbors who watch out for us. But then, for some reason, we resist the things that support these values. And we oppose efforts to make our neighborhoods more inviting, more comfortable, more livable.

Let me be honest: I personally dislike gated or otherwise walled-off communities. I also don't like homogeny in neighborhoods. I love diversity, the chance to meet someone not like myself-a stranger who comes into my life for a few minutes, or for a lifetime.

I like communities with big houses with wealthy folks, average homes with average Janes and Joes, and small homes lovingly occupied by service employees and blue-collar workers. I love my daughter and, in fact, she's one of those service employees I like to see in mixed-income neighborhoods. It's how I got started in life, too. And I like how I felt accepted. I appreciate young and old and rich and poor and all in between. I grew up that way, and it makes me comfortable.

Recently, I was on the phone with a community leader in the Midwest who asked for help from the institute that I lead because some of her neighbors oppose a proposed multi-use trail-a place to walk and to ride bikes. The opposition says the trail might bring about bike crashes and falls.

While I'm confident that as soon as we address this issue, another "technical brush-off," as we call it in my line of work, would be brought up by the same people. This is a game in which there is no winner, because the real problem isn't a concern about crashes, but rather a fear of people coming to our neighborhoods who aren't like us, or who we don't already know.

One of the sad ironies is that the people opposing that trail may be hurting their own property values. As CEOs for Cities shows us, "walkability" can increase a home's value by as much as $3,000 per walkability point, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per home.

Several years ago I was asked by a developer of a nearly built-out, high-end community in Florida, where homes were valued between $2 and $4 million, to help him find a way to sell his houses. There were no sidewalks or trails and the population was aging. Young buyers who could afford the homes weren't interested because they want to raise their children with sidewalks, trails, and the ability to get to know their neighbors. Older buyers weren't interested because they either couldn't sell their current homes, or they wanted to be able to " age in place," and they understood that living there would mean that once they no longer could drive, they'd be dependent on others to get them around. It took time, but the developer and the home owners realized that by not being inclusive, they had reduced their property values, and so, for the first time, they were looking to be more inclusive.

Yes, sigh, money talks.

And here's an example of how inclusiveness actually makes your neighborhood safer. In another set of Midwestern towns, I took a school bus full of planners, engineers, uniformed police officers and city administrators into a gated community. We walked a few blocks to talk about what was working and what wasn't working, taking maybe 10 minutes. By the time we got back to the school bus, we learned that the school board had received three phone calls from neighbors wanting to know what was going on. Not one person had come out of their homes to talk with us or find out why we were there.

About 30 minutes later our group exited the school bus in a community without gates, without walls. Within minutes, more than a dozen people had come out of their homes to check us out. "Hey, what's up, what's going on?" they asked. We felt comfortable and good.

This is the lesson: Neighbors in neighborhoods designed for inclusiveness watch over their streets naturally and consistently. They know each other. They come out of their homes. They use the sidewalks and trails and open space as more than just a place to pass by in their cars, but rather as a way to connect, and yes, to create natural surveillance of their neighborhoods.

So next time someone proposes a trail or sidewalk in a community that needs it, I hope everyone will think about the true safety factors, and even the long-term financial impacts, and not succumb to their fears of the unknown.

I'm just sayin' ...

Dan Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.  Follow him on Twitter @walkliveinst

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