When Jane Finger thought about where she wanted to spend her retirement years, the community she envisioned had to be walkable.
She found that place — and more — in Fairhope, Ala., population 17,000, on the east side of Mobile Bay. And she couldn’t be happier.
“I live a few blocks from our thriving downtown,” said Finger, who moved from Connecticut.
“Would you believe I can walk to the grocery store, bank, post office, library, drug store, a good book store or two, several restaurants, coffee and ice cream shops, city hall, our community theater, the Bay Park and public pier, farmers’ market, my beauty salon, a day spa for massages once a month, numerous art galleries, retail shops, a playground for grandchildren, our film series theater, the community garden where I have a plot, the community college auditorium, a church with public meeting rooms and more?” she asked rhetorically.
“The longest walk is to the hospital, which is only about 20 minutes away,” added Finger, who is 68. “So this has been great for my health and peace of mind in many ways. There is a great sense of community here. I see my neighbors out and about all the time. I want to walk, and not just for recreation.”
Finger acknowledges that Fairhope is not typical of most communities in this country, which has been dominated by suburban design since 1950. That means many neighborhoods — some without sidewalks — are often miles from shopping and other services.
Fairhope was founded in the late 1800s by a Utopian group from Des Moines, Iowa, that purchased 4,000 acres of rolling farmland studded with oaks. It has long been popular with writers, teachers and artists, who are drawn by the lifestyle and wonderful sunsets on Mobile Bay.
“Fairhope looked like a good place for me as an active, single woman,” she said. “Though it’s a ways down the road, the thing that bothered me most about aging was the idea of not having a car. I didn’t want to be isolated and dependent on others to take me places.
“In Fairhope, I can walk to just about everything I need and feel safe about it,” she said. “That is huge for me. It is a pleasant place to walk, too. You don’t have to walk down streets with cars zooming by at 40 mph. The streets are manageable for walking.
“And as for biking, we’re working on improving that now,” said Finger, who is a member of a group called “Complete the Streets.” She also is working to improve the public transit system in her area, which she calls “spotty.”
This year, when the city got ready to repave a lot of streets, she said the planners and the AARP called in a national consultant to improve some street crossings for pedestrians and to add bike-lane striping for cyclists.
“Improved transit is also part of that planning, too,” she said.
A Walking, Healthy Life
Finger said she is doing everything she can to stay healthy so she can walk to town for years to come.
“A neighbor of mine who died last year was 92 and was walking and riding his bike up to the end,” she mused. “I want to be like him.”
Finger said another advantage is that her grown children and their kids like visiting her.
“They enjoy walking and biking to parks, restaurants and the bay, too,” she said.
“I really like not having to spend time in the car,” she said. “And I figure if I run low on money, I won’t need to own a vehicle. In addition, I believe I’ve made an investment that will be attractive to buyers who like this lifestyle.”
Oh, and one other thing: Finger met her life partner in Fairhope. He, too, likes to walk.
James Sallis, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), said a number of studies have shown that while most Americans live in car-dependent suburbs, many wish they lived in more walkable communities.
In large part, that’s because walking equates to health, he said, noting the rise in obesity in this country over the past few decades as Americans spent more time in their cars commuting.
“With our modern suburbs, you have to drive to get most places,” he said. “Over time, zoning laws became more prescriptive about suburban-styles that made neighborhoods become ever-less walkable.”
But he said there has been pushback in the past decade to change zoning codes to promote communities that take the needs of pedestrians and cyclists into consideration.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good data on this trend,” he said. “The Congress for New Urbanism tried to track these types of walkable developments and couldn’t keep up. That’s an indication there are a lot more being built.”
Many surveys show people who live in walkable neighborhoods are trimmer, said Sallis, who heads UCSD’s Active Living Research program.
One study he did showed that people who lived in walkable neighborhoods were 12 percent less likely to be obese, he said. In the low-walkable area, 60 percent of the adults were overweight compared to only 48 percent in communities where residents could walk to services.
Sallis said urban design plays a big role in walking.
“If you live in a neighborhood where shops are right on the sidewalk, people are more likely to be active there as opposed to having more suburban-type of design where there is a giant parking lot you have to walk across to get to the stores,” he said.
Sallis said other studies have shown that the demand for walkable neighborhoods is strong among both young people and those of retirement age.
“Many don’t want to live in the suburbs,” he said. “They don’t want to have to drive everywhere. They want to be closer to the action and have a lively street life. Those demographics are pushing the housing market.
“Even if we built only walkable neighborhoods, it would take a couple of decades to meet the demand,” he said.
Providing the Choice to Walk
Kelly Morphy of the Walkable and Livable Communities (WALC) Institute, said just as activities like walking and biking have been engineered out of most Americans’ daily lives, they can be engineered back in.
“And it’s nothing that is being forced on people,” she said. “Communities are requesting assistance with this. If we look at this in the most basic way, we are building to accommodate people having choice.”
Morphy said this country will always need to have roads designed for cars and trucks.
“But we need these choices as a matter of public health, economic development and social health. We see that connectivity improves people’s lives — especially those of older Americans — when they have the ability to walk to their daily services and they can socialize with their neighbors and friends without having to drive to do that.”
Morphy said there are opportunities to retrofit streets to promote walkability when roads are being resurfaced or when there is infill in suburban areas.
“We need to be thinking 20 to 30 years down the road about how we want land to be developed,” she said.
“If we want to make streets safe for kids to cross to get to school, or to make them amenable to the corner grocery store and all those things that America grew to love decades ago, then we need to get the streets right to support that kind of development,” she said.
Morphy said there are many traffic-calming tools available, including curb extensions and modern roundabouts that are designed to slow entering cars enough so they will yield to pedestrians.
Another option is putting streets on a “road diet” that calms traffic by reducing the width of lanes, adding turn pockets and bike lanes, while maintaining traffic flow.
“If we are going to restore our public and community health, we also need to think about how the built environment either supports or discourages us in using active modes of transportation to actually get places.
“We strongly believe if we get the streets right, if we get the built environment right … then the infill development and the other amenities will come in a more appropriate way.”