Wondering What Happened to Wandering

Posted: September 10, 2010 in Getting away, Urban Design, Urban Lifestyle

I have always been fascinated by the urban environment around me, ever since I can remember. Some of my first memories are of buildings that impressed me as my mom took me on errands. One was of a strange shaped retail facade that caught my eye because it stood out from the ordinary shops around it. Trips downtown would expose me to the great multistory department stores, tall office buildings and wonderful theaters once used for vaudeville and silent films. Sometimes we would visit the first indoor shopping mall built in the eastern US.  (This served as embarrassment to my cousins from New Orleans, who otherwise thought themselves more sophisticated than us). Little did we know then that what seemed an improvement was actually the result of bad urban planning and government policies.

I grew up in what is now called a “walkable” neighborhood, in the 60’s. My home town of Homewood was originally built as a streetcar suburb  for the managerial class working in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Founded in the streetcar era of the 1920’s, Homewood was laid out with through streets lined with sidewalks, short blocks, narrow lots and alleyways. Up until the 1950’s, this was how towns were built before cars took over.

School was a short one mile walk away (downhill as I lived on high ground).  The library was a bit further, but was still somewhere I visited by myself after school once a week.  As kids we regularly walked to the store  when ever we had money burning a hole in our pocket. By the time I was twelve my friends and I had explored the entire town on our bikes. we had even learned how to safely cross the “highway”!

However, I also lived next to a large undeveloped wooded area. So, many a day were spent hiking in the nearby woods, building tree forts and tracking wild animals, real and imagined. A large clearing on a nearby hill was maintained by a neighbor and was known as “Kite Hill”.  Being in the foothills of the Appalachians, and ancient mountain chain 300 million years old and once under water, we could easily find fossils of extinct animals at any disturbed area.

The land was undisturbed because it had once been a used for mining the rich vein of iron ore that made  up the adjacent mountain and served as the foundation of the local economy. Long abandoned mining structures (and still open mine shafts) were there to explore and to spur our imaginations. From the top of this mountain, we could see  downtown Birmingham on one side and downtown Homewood on the other.

As young as ten, my friends and I were allowed to catch a bus to downtown to see a movie, by ourselves. Imagine allowing your kids to do that today!

Such were the days, living and growing up in a walkable and bike-able community.  This experience forms the basis of why I believe New Urbanism is the way to go. It also underlies my belief that cycling is a cure for much that ails us, and that streets should be built for people first,and motor vehicles second.

Today’s suburban kids have lost the freedom to wander like we had. Trapped in cul-de-sacs or in crime ridden urban areas, for too many their only contact with their environment is through a car or school bus window, or the video screen on their computer or TV. Is it any wonder that obesity among our kids is at epidemic levels? Is it any wonder that they only know how to communicate with text messaging?

On these pages, I will be wandering and wondering about city life. I hope you will join me as I  romantically wander through yesterday’s, today and tomorrow’s urban experiences.

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