Walkability Is Its Own Resiliency

new york snow blizzardLast week’s snowpocalyspe for the Northeast underscored the growing need to address issues of resiliency across all development patterns. The combination of fast-tracked growth in new communities, an aging network of infrastructure and the possibility of increasingly frequent severe weather events continues to put the spotlight on the ability of municipalities to operate safely throughout unplanned disruptions. Though the focus often leans towards building systems and infrastructural safety, walkability can be a key component of a resilient community that can help keep neighborhoods functioning normally.

On Saturday, New York City took quick and decisive measures to try and minimize injuries and accidents to residents in the face of an incoming snowstorm. The New York City Police Department issued numerous warnings leading up to the 2:30pm closure of all roads to all vehicles outside of emergency personnel. Suspended travel on all above ground MTA lines would follow at 4:00pm, making travel of any kind difficult, if not impossible, for locals in many neighborhoods.

If one removed vehicular travel and public transit from much of the nation’s municipalities overnight, the result would be a ghost town. Without the tree of driveways, to streets, to highways to parking lots, the suburban engine shuts down as it silently waits out the storm. The same cannot be said for healthy walkable environments like New York.

No Cars, But Plenty of People

After working inside and watching the snow fall steadily for most of the day, I ventured out at around 9:00pm in search of sustenance. It turns out I was not alone. Even with flakes still falling at a healthy clip, people were moving around the streets and sidewalks beneath the glow of streetlights and storefronts. Some bore sleds and saucers for exploring the rising snow banks. Others shared my impetus for a night stroll to look for a bite to eat.

I had no problem getting a sandwich (though it was not my only available option) and a bottle of wine from the liquor store. Within the blocks I walked there were numerous establishments open, undoubtedly by purveyors that lived within walking distance. Familiar watering holes were packed with locals looking for the combination of warmth and revelry on a cold night. Word from Manhattan proved to be similar with some restaurants not only being open, but full of patrons to rival normal nights of service.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer shared the same sentiment when local CBS news caught him in Brooklyn. “The snow didn’t stop anyone. People were snow-skiing, bringing their dogs, sledding with their kids. It brings back fond memories from when I took my kids there,” Schumer said.

Broad Resiliency

It is important to look at the idea of “resiliency” beyond the current buzzing connotation of built in strength for building systems and infrastructure.  Resiliency can extend to a notion like economic resiliency and the ability of local economies to function through not only extreme weather events, but fluctuations in broader economic health. There could also be ideas of social resiliency for fostering the ability of a community to gather, communicate and promote productive exchange in the face of disruptions to daily events. The fragility of an ecosystem can be measured by the extent of disruption that it can mitigate and still restore itself back to a state of dynamic equilibrium. Our own ecosystems constructed through development can be measured in the same way. 

While powering through one 24-hour snowstorm is not indicative of a planning panacea, it can serve as an indicator for a healthy model that can build on its own inner strength for a resilient economic and social environment. Walkable neighborhoods (with the density to support it) can serve as better breeding grounds for resilient communities and only complement the systems oriented solutions for mitigating fluctuation and disturbance.