A sidewalk to bridge Red and Blue
Nate Silver, the celebrated election prognosticator, Tweeted the following during the presidential race: Heuristic: if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.
The blog streets.mn speculated that either liberals choose places with sidewalks, or places with sidewalks create liberals.
A "fiscally conservative" Libertarian then objected in a comment that he or she much prefers sidewalks and urban living.
Nate Silver is one of the most astute analysts of voting patterns in the country, and there's a lot of truth to his observation. The presence of sidewalks is a pretty good dividing line between the "Red" and "Blue" parts of the country.
Sidewalks can even be seen as a kind of metaphor for two kinds of living. Without sidewalks: Independent, anti-government, don't tread on my land. With sidewalks: Communitarian, we're all in this together, equal rights on this right-of-way.
It's easy to divide the country into those who have sidewalks, and vote one way, and those who do not, and vote another way. But the commenter also raises a good point — real life is not so simple. Many people who prefer the city and town life are not liberals. Many small towns, with sidewalks and old-fashioned main streets, are politically conservative.
And vice-versa. Vermont, the most liberal state in the nation, has few sidewalks. It's populated by back-to-the-land, self-reliant — I'm stereotyping here — hippies and their children. In liberal Tompkins County, New York, where I live, we've seen a renaissance of small farms sprout up in recent decades, mostly using techniques that can be characterized as organic. This influx of largely liberal people — still a rarity in farm country — has given a booster shot to agriculture in the region.
Our nation needs places with sidewalks and without. We need farmers, we need ranchers, we need the people to work the land. But we also need cities and towns that generate most of our economic activity and, without which, the farmers would have no markets.
Cities and towns are best designed with sidewalks that offer options on how to get around.
For six decades, we built suburbs that were neither countryside nor true cities and towns. They were and are automobile-dependent. These far-flung suburbs also wielded tremendous political clout. Substantial public money flowed into sprawl to build and maintain roads, build new infrastructure systems, and build schools and institutions while older, walkable, neighborhoods languished. As fiscally conservative blogger Charles Marohn has demonstrated, this sprawl is not always a sound investment. But sprawl has begun to lose its economic appeal and, as the election shows, its political clout as well.
Walkable cities and towns, by contrast, thrive on diversity. If you are not a farmer or rancher — and very few of us are — there are benefits to living in a place with sidewalks, transportation options, and true diversity in race and culture, and, I hope, political viewpoints.
I am thrilled that sidewalks are now a factor in our presidency. This new era means that maybe older cities and towns will get some of their long-neglected needs met. People of all political stripes can benefit from genuine communities with transportation options. Our nation can be strengthened by the sustainability and fiscal resilience of walkable communities. At the same time, local agriculture can benefit from new ideas and outlooks.
Modern liberals did not invent sidewalks, even though they seem to do a lot of walking these days. Maybe it's time we built a sidewalk that helps bridge the great divide between Red and Blue.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better! Cities & Towns.
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