"Only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use." -- Jane Jacobs
In Rancho Cucamonga, California, a city where I once served as beat reporter for the local newspaper, it is vanishingly rare to see any of the 170,000 or so residents walking to the supermarket or the drug store or the ice cream parlor. The municipality is located about an hour's drive east of downtown Los Angeles, in a region of Southern California, the Inland Empire, that is arguably America's quintessential example of sprawl.
During my time there, which began in 2002, real estate prices were rising at an astonishing rate, and the local building industry was booming, so I wound up talking to a lot of developers in the course of my daily reporting. One of them, Randall Lewis, had an earnest interest in New Urbanism -- in fact, he told me, a planned community called Terra Vista was designed in the early 1980s by his family's company to be a cutting edge model of daily walkability.
This is a post about why those efforts failed.
Terra Vista was a finished neighborhood when I arrived: roughly two square miles of residential development with 6,349 houses, 2,066 town houses, and enough apartment units to accommodate roughly 3,000 additional residents. In total, roughly 20,000 people live in the neighborhood, making it one of the most dense in Rancho Cucamonga, though not very dense at all by the standards of a neighborhood in a traditional city. Just south of the housing development, however, is a retail center that can be reached without crossing a major street, and it serves the whole city, so the developers of Terre Vista figured it might support enough businesses to attract foot traffic from the neighborhood itself.
Residing in a Terra Vista apartment, or many of its homes, one could indeed acquire all the needs of daily living without a car. There are supermarkets, multiple restaurants, a movie theater, a Target, a Best Buy, a Barnes and Noble, and elementary and middle schools (though no high school) within easy walking distance of many residents, as well as 51.9 acres of parks, and even a 36.4 acre office park, making it plausible that some lucky resident could even walk to work.
Planners also provided for residents a system of landscaped, paved trails, many of which flow from the pedestrian-only end of cul-de-sacs down through the community to the retail centers. On paper, the trail system looks like a perfect way to encourage walking, and one does see kids on bikes, people walking dogs in the mornings and evenings, even occasional couples taking walks together for exercise, all in a setting that seems entirely pleasant. For the most part, however, the trails go unused by anyone as a substitute for a car, or a route to take when running a daily errand, or any other sort of non-recreational walking.
It's no wonder why.
Folks who've never lived in a big city don't grasp this intuitively, but a pleasant environment for daily walking doesn't depend so much on a pastoral setting or an impeccable paved trail so much as something to keep you interested, or at least to prevent you from getting bored, as you go. A long, winding trail is much worse on this metric than a bunch of short city blocks, even ugly ones, because the former forces one to walk the same way on every trip, whereas the latter opens up a bunch of different, equally convenient routes to the very same destinations.
Another problem: when a would-be walker approaches Terra Vista's retail center itself, that it is designed for automobile traffic is perfectly clear. Its orientation is entirely toward the major thoroughfare, so that residents of Terre Vista approach a facade that is obviously "the back" -- basically blank walls, enclosed dumpsters, and loading docks. Abundant parking means crossing huge stretches of asphalt to reach a lot of restaurants and stores. If there are bike racks at all, they aren't spread among the various tenants, so that one could ride up near the actual destination.
A community like Terra Vista is never going to be as walkable as an actual urban environment, or even close to it. Faraway jobs require the use of a car on an almost daily basis, and when one drives to work, it is difficult to break the habit of climbing into the car whenever there is a need to run errands, because one's expectations about time are powerful -- leaving early enough to walk from place to place takes practice, so that even people who intend to walk more end up driving through force of habit.
Shopping habits die hard too. Sure, it's only a twenty minute walk to the Target, but that's a long way when you buy many of your household items in bulk and expect to go several weeks between shopping trips.
Nevertheless, a Terra Vista built on short blocks rather than cul de sacs, with commercial and residential development more integrated, and buildings of different sizes and colors to complicate the street-scape, would make the neighborhood far more walkable than it is -- as would increasing density, for there is nothing so interesting on the street as seeing lots of other people as they go about their daily routines.
I've talked to developers who cite a place like Terra Vista as evidence that people don't like walking, that they won't use trails even if you build them, and that the effort of designing walkable neighborhoods in the nation's exurbs is pointless. That they are wrong is due partly to a fundamental misunderstanding of the factors that make walking an enjoyable part of daily life, and what attempts to build those environments should actually entail.