For some reason people often ask me about community—how to build it, how to get involved or engaged, what to do to make change. I’m not sure if this is because I frequently talk about the importance of community, or because someone’s read my book and there’s a chapter in there that addresses the role of walking in building community.
Either way, I’m the wrong person to be giving that kind of advice. I’m not a community organizer or even an activist. At best, I could make claims to being an advocate for some broad ideas like public schools, public lands (in ways that I hope help with rather than undermine #landback), and walkability. I don’t, to be honest, even know how to shake “community” out of the cliched buzzword that community has become. It might be that we all have to find that answer for ourselves. Communities are messy. True community takes hard work and involvement from all varieties of people and perspectives and it never ends. With some exceptions, it’s hard to get longstanding, resilient community if it’s made only of people with homogeneous opinions or ideologies, and living in that context of tension can be really hard most of the time. But humans need community—real community, whatever that ends up meaning for each of us—to thrive, and, to keep those communities going, enough people of good heart and care and civic mindedness need to stay involved.
That’s the best I got for the moment.
What I can do is talk about the things I do in my own community, and present some of the research from my book about how walking helps to build community through strengthening social capital. I’m going to break this up into two separate essays, possibly three, starting with the walking/walkability/social capital aspect because, like walking itself, those concepts spin off into a lot of seemingly unrelated things that might help us build better lives and care for a healthier planet.
I first became interested in local engagement when my spouse and I bought a house in a village of around 300 people in upstate New York. In case this evokes visions of a bucolic ideal, “village” is a legal term in New York—there was in fact no town center, only a tiny post office set off the highway, about a mile from my house, next to a mini convenience store that always seemed to have out-of-date milk. All the houses and farmlands were scattered around on comfy acreages with a lot of cornfields and forest and poison ivy everywhere, no sidewalks to be found, laced with narrow country roads full of commuters racing to and from New York City.
The first couple years we lived there, starting in 2002 or 2003, I went to a number of city council and planning meetings, where the planning board was made up of local landowners who were also developers. Newcomers’ perspectives, to put it mildly, were not welcome.
Community instead began to teach itself to me via relationships, like those with some difficult neighbors, or with the organic farmer down the road whose political viewpoints were the polar opposite of mine but with whom I otherwise had a lot in common, eventually including toddlers of the same age who played together in the dirt while we picked raspberries.
(Fun aside: That particular farm was the original one settled by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, which is the only reason I heard of and read his 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer. You can read his book at a number of online outlets like Yale Law School—Chapter 3, “What Is an American?” is often referenced among certain historical circles.)
I honestly had no clue then that I was being taught lessons in how community is about connection and relationships and the boundaries of trust, but I did feel how hard it was to develop any of that when all of us lived such isolated lives. Sometimes I walked the mile to the post office but with the traffic and narrow, winding country road it was sketchy, and I never passed another person outside of a car.
Somewhere in the decade-plus we lived there came a year when “say yes” became a theme or a meme or vibe or whatever. A fad maybe. I think it formed the plot of a movie at some point (clearly a forgettable one). I did care about community and civic engagement, and after years of living in big cities I wanted to make more of an effort in that small town I didn’t know we would never leave, so began saying “yes” to things when my first instinct was always (and will forever be), “No, I’d rather stay home with my cats and read a book.”
That’s how I ended up on a volunteer group for the local library and realized that a) being a writer meant people would always assume I know how to do PR (I do not), and b) I am terrible at and dislike doing fundraising. The biggest lesson, though, was that opening oneself totally to “yes” translates into burnout, irritation, and being asked to give more hours than there are in a day. It sucked. I liked the library people but did little of use and ended up low on energy for my kids, much less for myself or my spouse, and extremely cranky.
One of the things I knew in moving back to Montana (to what might be called my secondary hometown, where I went to high school and where my strongest roots are) was that I wanted my family to live in a resilient and connected community—worry about climate change had a lot to do with that and still does—but that would mean putting the work into the community in return.
But you can’t, in fact, say yes to everything. Or at least I can’t. So I decided to choose two areas that I cared most about—and to keep any volunteer activity strictly local—and give my time to those. They also had to be in-person things—showing up at my kids’ elementary classrooms to read with students rather than fundraising for the school, for example. I cannot remember why this was important but it’s been a good guideline for me, especially as, until the pandemic hit two years ago, my spouse traveled more than half the time and was often overseas, and with very young children at home my only opportunities to volunteer were during school hours. Being a freelancer gives me some flexibility in that respect but not everyone will have that kind of option.
Anyway, the two things I knew were most important to me were education—specifically math and public schools—and walking/walkability. I’ve mostly stuck with those, although public lands advocacy has snuck in there as something that I think is, like walking, vital to the future of being human. (I also have come to believe that livable communities where people want to be are crucial for the future of some kind of intact natural world and a habitable planet, but that’s another topic.)
One of the advantages of my town was that I could walk into a place that already had decades of local engagement, including developing an extensive bike and trail system during the twenty years I lived elsewhere. So when I ended up on a bike/pedestrian volunteer group for four years, the groundwork on that subject was already done, and that’s even more true for the bike/ped-oriented city committee I started a three-year term on last year. I have people to learn from and long-term projects to join and that’s a tremendous advantage. I try to keep a thirty-year vision in my head of what I want my community to look and feel like, but I was fortunate enough to come in at the end of other people’s thirty-year vision.
But when it comes to walking, there’s a reason I talk and write about advocacy groups—GirlTrek in particular—far more than I’ll ever mention Henry David Thoreau. GirlTrek began as a way to get Black girls and women walking together for their health—thirty minutes five days a week—and grew to informally encompass community engagement that meets the level needed in one’s own place. The work they do is phenomenal. When I walked with GirlTrek in Denver, Colorado, Pam Jiner taught me about the missing safe routes to the neighborhood swimming area and park, and the intersections where drivers always failed to stop, and how she takes city councilors on walking audits so they can experience the problems for themselves.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the GirlTrek leaders led our group from the National Walking Summit on a tour of the Rondo neighborhood and gave a history lesson in how the eight-lane I-94 freeway created what is essentially an impassable canyon right in the middle of the neighborhood in the 1950s-60s, destroying homes and thriving businesses, and how Rondo has spent the ensuing decades rebuilding its connections and resilience. Walking a community like Rondo gives a visceral understanding of how disastrous the decades of federal highway building was—and remains—for mostly Black communities across the U.S. It’s lessons like that that led me to my own local city council meetings last year to advocate against my state’s proposed expansion of the already extremely busy highway that runs through the center of my very small town.
Walking can be, I think, a perfect introduction to community engagement for those thirsty to get involved. Can you walk out your front door? Is there a sidewalk missing? Why? How can you find out? Whom can you reach out to about getting one? Which department handles it and how do their project prioritizations and budget work? What are the barriers to progress? Where is self-directed mobility made impossible for a wheelchair user or anyone else but the most hale and bipedal of people? (The answer to that one is most places.) What can you do about it? Why are there areas where you have to walk a quarter mile between even semi-safe crosswalks on busy four- to five-lane thoroughfares? How do you get people to stop parking on the sidewalk? (If you find an answer to that last, please tell me.)
Some of these questions come down to national transportation policy—in the U.S. and many other countries, car supremacy above all other mobility forms—but others have local answers, like repairing crumbling sidewalks or figuring out a safe route for kids to walk or bike to school. We can learn from national groups like America Walks about how to advocate (they do train advocates through their Walking College!), but the approaches will be local, dependent on your own community’s character, expectations, budget, laws, and willingness to change. Every community’s starting place is different.
Walking is also a good introduction because it really does build community in itself, through the development of what’s termed “social capital,” also known as “neighborliness.” I wrote about this idea at more length in A Walking Life:
“The academic idea of social capital has been around at least since the 1920s, although obviously community and neighborliness have been around for much longer than that. It was only when we began losing these things that we had to find ways to define and quantify and study them. . . . Dr. Cletus Moobela, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Civil Engineering and Surveying, wrote that relatively high social capital has been shown to increase productivity and prosperity, decrease rates of depression, suicide, heart attacks, and cancer; reduce crime, child abuse, and drug abuse; and even make government agencies more responsive and efficient. It’s also characterized by high levels of trust and civic engagement. Both rampaging kids and the cranky neighbor who yells at them to get off the lawn are strengthening their community’s social fabric.”
Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone describes social capital in more depth, including its origination:
“The first known use of the concept [social capital] was not by some cloistered theoretician, but by a practical reformer of the Progressive Era—L.J. Hanifan, state supervisor of rural schools in West Virginia. Writing in 1916 to urge the importance of community involvement for successful schools, Hanifan invoked the idea of ‘social capital’ to explain why. For Hanifan, social capital referred to ‘those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among individuals and families who make up a social unit.’”
Putnam hit obliquely on walkable communities again and again throughout Bowling Alone. “The car and the commute,” he wrote, “are demonstrably bad for community life. In round numbers the evidence suggest that each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10%.” Driving to work an hour a day doesn’t lend itself to showing up at city council meetings, but it also doesn’t make knowing your neighbors easy, or lead to either of you investing time in the welfare of the other or in uncompensated civic engagement that benefits people you never meet:
“In fact, although commuting time is not quite as powerful an influence on civic involvement as education, it is more important than almost any other demographic factor. . . . Strikingly, increased commuting time among the residents of a community lowers average levels of civic involvement even among noncommuters.”
It’s in granular, often inconsequential, actions that social capital is formed, the neighborly interchanges that can only really happen in person and by chance among wide varieties of people. To make that happen, you need time for people to be in their community—not just running errands in a car—as well as urban design that makes chance and inconsequential interactions possible.
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg most recently has written about public libraries as well as social capital in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but he started by studying a heat wave in Chicago that killed 739 people in 1995. It wasn’t wealth that saved people; it was close-knit community. One of the city’s poorest neighborhoods at the time, Auburn Gresham, had one of the highest rates of survival due to its social capital:
“It had restaurants, churches, stores, and community clubs and organizations. It was a place where ‘people hung out on the street,’ and residents told Klinenberg that during the heat wave they’d known whom to check up on. Despite being known as one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago, Auburn Gresham paid a lower toll for the heat wave than wealthier suburbs across town.”
Dr. Moobela’s research goes deeper into how infrastructure itself helps to build these connections and strengthen social capital, and it all comes down to walkability by design:
“While some forms of urban development can encourage social capital, others don’t, and the main difference lies in whether they facilitate physical interactions among people: pedestrian-oriented design such as accessible public spaces, sidewalks, and houses with front porches, among other features intended to bring people in contact with one another, contribute highly to social capital.”*
Walking and walkability both increase civic engagement and help to build trust among people in a community. That doesn’t mean the engagement doesn’t take work, or that trust is never broken, but when you need people to step up to help your town or neighborhood function, or when hardships come and people need to work together for survival, investment in social capital pays itself back ten times over.
And walkability forces engagement in other issues: homes in walkable, mixed neighborhoods and towns—where you can walk to a variety of services, schools, cafes, etc.—have become increasingly desirable over the last decade or so, meaning that as walkability goes up, affordability starts to drain away. Which provides an opportunity to ask, as I did constantly when writing my book, “Who gets to walk, and where?”
This is important. I don’t work directly on local affordable housing issues partly because I’m already overcommitted but mostly because a lot of excellent people are already doing that. But it doesn’t mean I can’t do work related to affordable housing. The crisis in my town has gone beyond acute, and issues of affordability and walkable design are interconnected.** Neighborhoods can’t built cohesion if most homes are owned by wealthy part-time residents or rented out for short-term units, or if an apartment building is torn down so a development company based goodness-knows-where can build luxury condominiums. Or, my personal recent favorite, “lifestyle condominiums.” I have no idea what that means but I bet it’s not cheap. (I live in a tourist destination so these examples are specific to my town; where you are might have very different issues with housing.)
Perhaps Jane Jacobs put it best in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in a section pushing back on the claim that neighborhoods needed to be “ethnically cohesive” to be stable—an assumption that was common in the 1950s and 60s when she was writing, and is still too often made today:
“Neighborhoods that work, that have high levels of social capital, ‘contain,’ Jacobs wrote, ‘many individuals who stay put.’ Communities with strong social capital, especially in cities, tend to be sticky. People stay put, even at different stages of life and through changes in careers. They build trust over many years and countless interactions.”
So maybe that’s the larger goal of how I spend my volunteer time when it comes to walking and walkability: I want a place that’s “sticky”—one where enough people want to stay put, where they want to live, but also one where it’s both possible for people to stay put, and for people who’ve left to come back home again when they feel the urge.
“Walking and social capital,” I wrote in A Walking Life,
“exist in direct relationship, each strengthening the other, and that same walkability, the ways in which we perceive walking and have access to walking, has a direct effect on how well our societies function, and for whom. How public spaces are created and maintained, how we use them, and who gets to use them without repercussions, makes a difference to the health of our neighborhoods, towns, and nations. Walking is both a cornerstone of a functional society, and a deeply political act in its own right.”
So I work on walking. One could say it’s my “thing,” which is true, but I also believe in it on many levels, in its capacity to restore and uplift our lives and the planetary life our lives depend on; and believe that people’s right to access it is vital for individual health and the health of our communities.
Walking itself, as many have shown over the centuries, can be an act of citizen engagement and community building on its own. Even if you never get around to pestering city council to fix the sidewalk.
*The exception to this is gated communities. Dr. Moobela’s research has shown an inverse relationship between gated communities and social capital, and other research has backed this conclusion up. Not only that, but it is possible for gated communities to damage the social capital of surrounding neighborhoods by undermining trust and a sense of social contract:
“Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder, who published the book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States in 1997, wrote that the social exclusion these neighborhoods foster can be dangerous for the cohesion of nearby communities: ‘without social contact, the social contract that underpins the health of a nation will be damaged. . . . We no longer speak of citizens, but rather of taxpayers, who take no active role in governance, but merely exchange money for services.’”
**On the flip side, forcing all affordable houses out to driving distances—especially in a place with little or no public transportation—has other costs. People who are totally dependent on a car to get to work, etc., use nearly 20% of their income on transportation, whereas that expense can be as low as 7-9% of income when there’s good public transit. So I also do engage in what feels like an intractable, never-ending push—it’s more like a plea—for a reliable and comprehensive county-wide public transit system as part of my “walking” portion of volunteer time.
The next part of this essay (essays?) will be on education and public schools, specifically the various ways that I annoy people about math, but might also address time (or lack thereof). There might be a third part on trust. I promise to be more organized about all this when this newsletter shifts to paid sometime after the end of June, but for now I’ve just got a few days between copy editing assignments!
Whenever I start thinking about how to build community, I end up thinking about how to end capitalism and colonialism. It's hard to have strong community and roots when your society is built on constant mobility. If you live in the sticks (as I grew up, and as I live now), you expect your kids to leave, enjoy good college towns and big cities. Every member of your family gets into a different line of work, and moves where the jobs are. The only way to stay in touch with family and friends, if Zoom isn't enough for you (and I should hope it is not), is to drive and fly and sully the environment in the process, spewing carbon all the way.
Or maybe they stay in one place, as some in my family, while the place changes around them—and they can no longer afford to rent there. They live in cars.
Even if your family has sat on a chunk of land for a few generations, chances are your forbears murdered someone to acquire that chunk of land. How are we to build continuity and community out of bloodshed?
I appreciate these efforts to parse your own interest in the dynamics and infrastructure of vital and healthy communities from the abstract (and as you say, sometimes cliched or idealized) notion of "community." Even if this won't address the larger challenge, I wonder if it might feel helpful to identify another term that captures the "community" element of what you write about here. I can't help feeling that this has a lot to do with scale; not just appropriate level, but proper sensitivity to it. The New York Times readership doesn't feel like a community, even if it might be a culture. But your blog here does. Yet even your intimate blog with its loyal readers lacks the physicality and localness of your town in Montana.
Walking is a good metaphor for a low-to-midrange of scale when it comes to movement (itself an elemental human activity and one of the building blocks for everything else we do). It's not crawling or sitting or shifting around, nor is it running or biking or driving. It gets you places, but it also doesn't have to, and it accommodates a range of social activities and levels of speed. It's inherently local without being confining.
I spent the vast majority of my life in walkable neighborhoods in or next to the same midsize community (New Haven, CT.) which despite its many problems and own messed up urban planning history, and bizarre relationship with Yale, has some of those "sticky" attributes you allude to. I think part of the reason I got stuck there so long is the large amount of social capital I managed to build up over the decades, with very modest effort and even more modest accomplishments, and much of this was facilitated by always being out and about, walking around. I've never owned a car. Two months ago I moved to Guelph, Ontario for a graduate program, which people tell me is one of the "better" cities around here. But it's surprisingly hard to build up social capital again from scratch.