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Dogs in Walkable Neighborhoods Are Very Happy Right Now

Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Americans are rediscovering the sidewalk, the park, and the value of connection.

As of March 27, 2020, about 228 million Americans (70% of the country’s population) are under some degree of “stay-at-home” directive[1]. This has led many to work from home, school at home, and even worship at home. We have read more books, articles, and posts about how to keep ourselves occupied while at home (with or without family) during this period than ever before. Some are reading about how to refrain from plotting the demise of loved ones who are in closer proximity, for longer periods of time, than comfort or good sense would normally allow. It’s rumored that couples who have been married for over ten years are being sought out for their expertise in the art of in-house social distancing.

One of the exclusions in nearly all shelter-in-place orders is the allowance for outdoor recreation. In fact, outdoor excursions are encouraged for their physical and mental health benefits. Most Americans are understandably worried about the health and economic challenges COVID-19 is imposing. Simply taking a walk is a respite from the unrelenting news about the virus, and provides good, free medicine. That’s why the dogs of America are very happy (stay-at-home cats on the other hand are a little perturbed).

People are utilizing their neighborhood’s sidewalks in tremendous numbers. Many people are rediscovering what regular walkers are reminded of each day: sidewalks provide an elegant, low-cost amenity which enrich our lives.

In addition to the obvious – providing a path for people to walk on to get somewhere – sidewalks provide an exercise machine for people of all ages and nearly all abilities. While most sidewalks are minimal (a mere 5’ width is standard) they provide fertile ground for people to have connection with each other, albeit at a six foot distance for the moment.

However, far too many communities still don’t have the most fundamental ingredient of a walkable neighborhood: the ubiquitous sidewalk. This simple-to-construct, concrete strip is non-existent in many places.

Other cities may have constructed sidewalks, but those sidewalks are disconnected, in poor condition, or surrounded by a built environment so hostile to humans that all pedestrians with a choice have been chased away.

People in those places, including children and senior citizens, must choose either to walk in the street – the domain of cars and trucks – or stay isolated inside their homes. This unfortunate condition is sad during normal times but now, when going outside for a walk seems like a necessity for maintaining some degree of health and sanity, a community’s lack of sidewalks is unconscionable and downright mean.

The actions of many cities has been, in far too many cases, egregiously misaligned with the needs of their citizens.

A genuinely great walkable neighborhood has more than just sidewalks of course. High quality walkable neighborhoods have places worth walking to and sidewalks worth walking down. Walkable street corridors, whether in exclusively residential areas or commercial / mixed-use ones, have street trees and streetlights in “collector strips” which separate sidewalks from the vehicle cartway. Great walkable neighborhoods also have places of destination – such as neighborhood businesses, schools, churches, and parks – within a 15 minute walk (about 1300 feet). If a neighborhood can have several of a family’s weekly destinations within walking distance of their front door, then that community is much more likely to be healthy, happy, and thriving.

Speaking of parks, right now many American families are flocking to parks and recreation fields for that prescribed recreation. While some facilities that are necessarily touched by people, and therefore ready transmitters for the COVID-19 virus, are closed (such as playgrounds) open greens and athletic fields are now populated by active adults and children. People are lacing their gym shoes, leashing their dogs, inflating soccer balls, and looking for that tennis racket they saw in the garage awhile back.

However, while regional parks and recreation fields offer wonderful places for large scale activities, “Pocket Parks” provide smaller scale places to enjoy a moment outdoors. Pocket parks offer communities the opportunity to create public places in locations sprinkled throughout a city. They usually only take up a single lot and can be inexpensively built and maintained. Perhaps most beneficial of all, Pocket Parks can reveal or reinforce a neighborhood’s unique personality.

A Pocket Park can be a simple grassy area…

…or it can be elaborately landscaped and formal.

A Pocket Park can have play equipment for kids...

…or it can have games for, well, other kids.

A Pocket Park can be soft and casual…

…or hardscaped and urban.

Pocket Parks can be commemorative and even monumental.

…and Pocket Parks can be for the dogs.

Cities that have been insightful enough to install pocket parks throughout their community now have residents who are reaping the benefits tenfold. Most cities unfortunately don’t have nearly as many pocket parks that they could or should. These gathering places not only provide outdoor amenity spaces as unique as there are individuals, they raise property values, provide civic pride and human connection.

The COVID-19 outbreak is reminding many people of our need for connection. Netflix can only bring happiness to our lives in binged amounts – and then we need to get out and enjoy the society of others. We humans are in need of shared experiences and face-to-face interaction. Whether planned or by-chance, social interaction requires the construction of spaces that provide ample, proximate, and comfortable places to gather. Stay well and remember to pick up your dog’s poop.

[1] Sarah Mervosh, Denise Lu, and Vanessa Swales, “See Which States and Cities Have Told Residents to Stay at Home”, New York Times, updated 27 March, 2020.

Jeff Raser, AIA, is the owner of Cincinnati Urban Design and Architecture Studio (CUDA Studio). Midway through Jeff’s 30 year career he realized it is the space outside and between buildings that is the focus of his passion.

Jeff has master-planned new communities, created urban design plans for existing urban neighborhoods, and helped create zoning codes (including form-based codes) which allow developers to profitably create what communities want and need. He’s also designed many new urban-infill buildings – and restored historic ones – helping communities realize their full potential.

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