Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Strong Towns wants to change the way Americans see the places they live—such as what a walk to the store reveals about infrastructure.
The idea for the “Walk to Get Your Groceries” challenge came at a low moment.
Andrew Burleson, board member of the nonprofit Strong Towns, was sitting around with the organization’s leaders, Chuck Marohn (who coined the term “stroad” to describe the dysfunctional streets/roads that lace through the American landscape) and Jim Kumon. They were talking about the Strong Towns mission—“to support a model of growth that allows America’s cities, towns, and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient”—and they were, frankly, feeling a little discouraged.
“We were thinking about bigger-picture stuff,” says Burleson. “Why are we here? What are we doing? What’s the point of all this? What can we do that matters? We need to reach lots more people.”
The three men realized, says Burleson, that while they had gotten good at delivering the type of economic argument that might resonate with bureaucrats or elected officials, the conversation was not expanding the way they wanted it to. They needed to find a way to reach ordinary Americans and change the way they see the places they live. Without that type of shift, Burleson says, more fundamental transformation is never going to happen.
“I live in Raleigh, North Carolina,” he says. “Let’s say I wanted to see some real change in Raleigh—so that they would never issue a building permit for a crappy suburban building project again. That’s not going to happen unless I have 150,000 people ready to march on City Hall and camp out.”
He doesn’t have those people.
To begin closing that gap, Burleson and his Strong Towns colleagues are rolling out a series of challenges that they hope people around the country will try out and share with friends. The first—the first of many, they hope—is “Walk to Get Your Groceries,” inspired by Burleson’s own realization of how strange his own pedestrian trips to the store are to most Americans.
“We want to give you a long list of things you can do, experiences you can have that will allow you to see differently the way you live,” says Burleson. “They boil down to really simple things that anyone can do with no resources and no permission. Some of them may become lifestyle changes or change the way you think.”
They all are going to be “something kind of weird,” says Burleson, which walking to the grocery store is in many parts of the country. That, he hopes, will spark conversation. “It will give you a chance to talk to your friends, to say, 'Hey, I did this weird thing the other day.'"
There has yet to be a landslide of responses on the grocery challenge. Several of the people who have posted their experiences say they already do their shopping on foot or by bike. And that isn’t by chance: They have chosen to live in places where that is possible and manageable.
Others, however, report an increased awareness of just how pervasive the obstacles to walking are. Vincent Tice, of Union City, California, described a quarter-mile trip that was marked by wide crossings with inadequate timing on pedestrian signals, unfriendly signs at parking lot entrances, and swaths of asphalt to be crossed at several junctures. To walk that quarter mile took him 10 less-than-pleasant minutes, and he contemplated how difficult the journey would have been for younger or older people—exactly the populations that might have less access to a car.
For anyone who lives in a city designed with pedestrians as a priority, the idea of driving a quarter-mile to do an errand—the equivalent of five blocks in New York City—would be unthinkable. Walking it is nearly as unimaginable in Union City, despite the theoretical pedestrian accommodations of the roadways.
Burleson says that this first challenge actually made some people angry. “A couple of people got mad because they couldn’t do it,” he says. “They wrote emails saying, ‘Why would you suggest I do something I can’t do?’”
For his purposes, that response is useful, too. It’s all part of a dialogue that he hopes will eventually spread and start to change the way people see their communities. It’s a conversation that Burleson desperately wants to move out of the halls of urbanist wonkery and into the general population.
“We have this thing where we say, 'Cities need to do this, they need to do that, they need to stop doing this. Cities, cities, cities,'" says Burleson. “But the city is not a person whom we can talk to and reason with, call into our office and have an intervention, and send it out the door and tell it never to do that again.”
And so the challenges will continue, and he is hopeful that they may, through social media and other kinds of sharing, seep into the larger American conversation. He likens it to the early days of the environmental movement, when the idea of planting trees or recycling was a novelty.
So far, Burleson acknowledges, what they're calling the Strong Citizens Challenge is hardly the Ice Bucket Challenge (too bad, he says with a laugh, that they didn't come up with that one). But he insists that it’s a start. “The ability to have an individual call to action is one of the distinguishing features in a movement,” says Burleson. “We have to have an answer to that. We need to be talking about how we can have a million people who care.”