Back in March, urbanist author Philip Langdon came to The National Press Club to talk about his latest book, “Within Walking Distance.” Langdon uses six neighborhoods around the country of varying density, age, urban character, and geographical location as case examples for which kinds of built environments lead to places that are walkable, community-oriented, pleasant to live in, and economically successful.
Each lesson Langdon draws from the neighborhoods he studied can also be seen in action within the Washington region. Here are the first three.
1. Philadelphia — Center City: narrow streets, neighbors meet
Langdon noted that in the South neighborhoods of Philly, many streets are so narrow that parked cars cannot fit and passing auto traffic moves slowly by necessity. The most basic infrastructure of the city — the street grid — was created long before automobiles took a dominant place in urban design thinking, so walking and cycling is favored by default.
Due to limited volumes and speeds of car traffic, more children play in the streets. Because people had to walk from their house a block or two down to where their cars were parked, they had the chance to meet their neighbors more readily than if they simply hopped into the driver’s seat directly outside of their houses (or in their own driveways) and sped off.
DC — along with its broad boulevards — is also blessed with relatively narrow streets in many places, especially among the non-alphabetically named streets like Gales Street NE in Kingman Park or Newport Place NW in Dupont Circle. These are an invaluable urban resource that make some neighborhoods of the city walkable and bikeable by nature.
The narrowest of DCs streets (like the two above) are often not through-streets. When streets are viewed as more than a means for going somewhere else—as places in and of themselves—we build streets that are safer and more human-scale.
2. New Haven — East Rock: Third Places make public space into a destination
East Rock Coffee (formerly called Lulu’s after original owner Lulu deCarrone) has been a focal point of New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood since it opened in 1991. When the cafe opened up sidewalk seating and began to convert previously empty space into a shared communal space, other neighboring businesses were inspired to do the same.
As these businesses all began setting up sidewalk seating, and the streets of the neighborhood became a vibrant “place to see and be seen” according to Langdon, who stresses the importance of so-called “Third Places” where people can spend time out in public when they’re not at work or at home.
Part of what makes Washington so vibrant is its own third places. For example, in the warmer months, the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District hosts “Farrugut Fridays,” when the downtown square becomes a shared office space with free wi-fi, tables and chairs, food trucks, and recreation, all culminating in a free outdoor movie screening at sunset.
What Langdon points out happened with a small coffee shop in Connecticut applies equally to public spaces anywhere: once you open up a space and invite people to gather, it becomes a source of community.
3. Brattleboro, VT — Fireside True Value: Support small and local businesses
As small town populations shrink and grow older, local businesses can struggle to compete with national chains. But in Brattleboro, Vermont, Langdon argues that many local shops are thriving because the town has successfully built social norms that steer people towards buying local.
In Brattleboro, when a Home Depot opened up across from the Fireside True Value hardware store, the town responded not only with public protest and calls for boycott, but also by privately pushing friends and neighbors to patronize Fireside instead. Langdon said he was told by locals that they didn’t set foot in Home Depot even to look around because they were worried a neighbor might see them doing so.
In DC, local businesses similarly face challenges from large chains which have inherent competitive advantages due to their scale, but perhaps with even more urgency, given the difficulty of paying the region’s high rents. Residents of Mount Pleasant, a DC neighborhood with a small town feel, have long been fighting back against what some see as the invasion of national chain stores.
When Subway was in the process of moving into the space it now occupies on Mount Pleasant Street and Kilbourne Place NW, local artist Robin Bell started projecting anti-Subway messages (and poop emojis) onto the building in protest. More recently, when CVS was rumored to be considering buying the building occupied by family-owned Best World grocery next door, community members responded not only by signing an anti-CVS petition more than 2,600 times, but also by supporting a fundraiser punk show performed in Best World’s aisles.
Though DC is hardly a small town, there are many neighborhoods with tight-knit social circles that enable residents to leverage the same sentiments of pro-local business support that allowed small-time entrepreneurs to compete in Brattleboro. Made in DC, Alexandria’s Shop Small campaign, and the Baltimore area's Small Business Saturday are other examples of regional initiatives to support local makers.
What do you think of these examples? Stay tuned for the next three!