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Walk for safety, but leave your living room behind

In all the talk about rising crime in Minneapolis, and all the things we need to do to turn the tide on it, I haven't heard much talk about something that I think is one of the most obvious ways to make a neighborhood safer. I hear testimonials for my crime-fighting strategy every once in a while, when a new neighborhood group begins a walking patrol and notices how much of an impact a group of adults can make just walking down a city street a couple nights a week.

Now imagine adults walking down the street not just a couple times a week, but constantly -- and not only do you have a picture closer to what Minneapolis streets were like sixty or seventy years ago, but you also have a picture of how streets in European cities are different from those in most American cities.

In the first two decades of this century, the artist Giorgio di Chirico created a haunting set of paintings of vast cityscapes: buildings, streets, sidewalks, that were haunting for their emptiness. In his most famous image, the only human inhabitant of a vast street is a child playing a game with a metal hoop. Perhaps Chirico's work is not so haunting to us today, for what he predicted in his paintings was exactly what US cities and suburbs have become.

Walking the streets of Northeast is often like walking through a di Chirico painting; I am haunted and scared because, although I see all this city around me, I see an almost complete lack of people. Sometimes I see children, sometimes I see a senior citizen, but there are a couple generations who have almost completely deserted the sidewalks, and the streets of our city are far more dangerous for their absence.

Busy streets are safer

Long before there were organized police forces, cities far larger than Minneapolis remained livable and safe because the city was out there on the streets to be seen. Pedestrian activity stayed at high levels all day long because people walked for every trip they made, and if somebody was going to do something against the grain he or she would have to contend with the dozens or hundreds of people who would witness their act.

European cities maintain crime rates much lower than US cities in part because they still maintain a high level of activity on the street. I am so conditioned to the empty streets of Minneapolis that I often feel myself pulling away from crowds, but my instincts know better, and when I go to an unfamiliar city I keep to the streets where I can see people walking. This same instinct tells me that most of the streets of Minneapolis are scary places, when they may not be so dangerous as they are just plain empty.

People in machines

The adults haven't completely vacated the streets of Minneapolis: they did not stay in their living rooms lounging. They are moving about, but they're stuck inside machines, inside their cars. But even though they are in their cars, maybe they haven't left their living rooms.

As someone who doesn't drive, I can look inside cars with a little more dispassion than a driver can, and when I look into a car, I see a person in their living room. Cars have couches, easy chairs, and home entertainment centers, just like living rooms, and being in a car closes you off from the street just as much as staying in your living room does.

Of course, cars are useful transportation tools: they're the big guns of getting around. But you don't use the big guns for everything; a sign of a good carpenter is someone who knows the right tool for the right job. Too many people these days are bad carpenters -- for where transportation is concerned, they use the same tool for everything.

Now you don't need to take your living room with you everywhere you go, and it is very wasteful habit to get into -- for every time you drive somewhere, most of the energy goes to moving your living room, not you. And Northeast Minneapolis provides a wonderful environment for using other transportation tools, such as the set you were most likely born with. Most of Northeast Minneapolis was established before most people had cars, so it tends to be a very walkable place. Just about everything you could possibly need is within a thirty minute walk from your home. The problem is that so many people have become so dependent on taking their living room with them everywhere they go that a thirty minute walk is unheard of, but a thirty minute drive to go shopping or to a park is commonplace.

Use your imagination

Walking improves both the health of the person doing the walking and the health of the place in which they walk. Keeping this in mind, driving for a trip that could just as easily be accomplished by walking not only demonstrates a lack of responsibility toward oneself, but also toward one's community. San Francisco Examiner financial columnist Eric Tyson recently wrote, "Our dependence on the car often has more to do with our lack of imagination and willingness to be flexible than it does on any real necessity."

Now if more people in Northeast started thinking, "Do I really need to take my living room with me on this trip?" before reaching for their car, and walked several times a week instead, I really think we'd end up with safer streets. As a matter of fact, the probability that you will be hurt or killed in an automobile accident is much higher than the probability that you will be hurt or killed in a crime. So if we can really take a bite out of the number of car trips here and increase pedestrian activity on our streets, Northeast Minneapolis could very well become the safest place to live in the whole Twin Cities.

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Copyright © 1998 John Akre
This page last updated 28 April 2000