In the second installment of our COO, Michelle Drouse Woodhouse’s Suburban Mom series about placemaking - and the State of (Suburban) Place(s) - Michelle is a fish out of water determined to re-learn how to walk, while trying not to fully embrace the suburban mom title. See how she did on her “walk” to the local 7-Eleven store with her kids. And find out how data and predictive analytics can help make all suburban walks more memorable - and safe!
After three years living in the Detroit suburbs, it hasn't gotten any easier dealing with the endless, bitter cold winters. It feels like we’ve been hibernating for months. Trying to keep my two little ones warm often seems like a futile effort. There are so many teeny-tiny articles of clothing to put on - hats, jackets, boots, gloves, snow pants, scarves - and put back on after they intentionally throw them off themselves! I find myself rushing from the door of my house to the door of my pre-heated to the car to the door of our destination trying to keep them (and me!) from freezing. This goes against my core values as a State of Place(er) and urbanite wanna-be, not to mention makes me miss my former, walkable London life. But I'm determined to turn over a new leaf now that Spring has sprung and decided to (attempt to) walk to the nearest store in my neighborhood with the girls - by myself!
If you interact with little ones, you know that encouraging them to do something new isn’t an easy feat. Lana, my one-year-old, is happy to go on adventures but my three-year-old, Ava, requires convincing. So I asked her if she would like to go for a walk to pick out a special treat at the 7-eleven store, and she said YES! (thank goodness).
As I was loading the girls on the tandem stroller, I realized that I didn’t actually know the best route to get there on foot. I was annoyed with myself because I’ve been so car-dependent in my community aside from walking to the park behind my house. I thought about going through the park but my mental map didn’t connect the park to the arterial street that leads to the store. I thought about going the way I would if I were to drive there but I wasn’t 100% sure that there were sidewalks. So I decided to walk through the subdivision because I knew there was access to the arterial and I vaguely recalled seeing a sidewalk. I thought about consulting my Google Maps App on my phone but I decided that we would be “adventurous” and explore the neighborhood on foot without GPS technology.
Walking through my neighborhood was pleasant and quiet. I was secretly hoping that we might have the opportunity to meet some new little friends for my girls but the only kids that we saw were a bit older playing basketball in their driveway. We easily walked on paved sidewalks that were offset from the street and winded around the subdivision. As we approached the arterial road, I started to get anxious because I had never actually walked along that road with both girls on my own. Luckily, there was a decent sidewalk that was offset from the street but it was a very intimidating experience. My three-year-old was standing on the tandem stroller (super cool hop-on-hop-off feature) and I had to have a conversation about staying on the stroller and not jumping off because the street with the loud cars was a dangerous place.
At the controlled intersection, we waited to cross and I made sure that I made eye contact with the drivers and that they saw us crossing the street. Success, we finally made it to the 7-Eleven - 15 minutes later!
Ava picked out a lollipop, some chips and paid for her treats (good opportunity to practice doing that on her own, too!), and she was super excited to eat her “lollie” the moment she paid for it. I wouldn’t say that a convenience store was the greatest destination but I thought about instilling my childhood love for Slurpees in summer with the girls and decided that we would do this again.
On our way out of the store, I thought we should try to go home on a different route so we waited at the intersection and started looking for the sidewalk for the alternative route. And we realized that there was no sidewalk on that street and we would have had to cross another major road and then jaywalk back to our neighborhood. There was no way I was going to do that on a busy street while pushing a tandem stroller. So we decided to go back the way we came but investigate whether we could walk through the park to get home. I incentivized this detour with promises of playing at the park and got the green light from Ava.
As we walked along the anxiety-inducing arterial, we found what we thought was the entrance to the park - great, it’s a shortcut! But it was actually the entrance to the cemetery (eek) and we had to walk several minutes through it to find the access to the park. We finally found the path to the park, and I realized this was the first time I had walked into the park using the main access.
The best surprise on this detour was finding a Little Library that I didn’t know existed (this was particularly exciting because I was involved in launching another Little Library in Detroit recently and I love the concept of “leave a book/take a book” to promote literacy and community!). I couldn’t believe that I had never seen it before - what a gem! And, what book did we find? “The Foot Book” by Dr. Seuss, which was so appropriate as we were on our neighborhood adventure by foot! We continued down the path to the wonderful playground where both girls got to stretch their legs.
This is a ubiquitous problem. Sidewalks that don’t exist where they need to be. A lack of destinations/amenities to walk to. Scariness walking along high-traffic streets. Detours into cemeteries and not feeling safe. A lack of destinations accessible from your home. And, on and on. But this isn’t the way it has to be!
What's interesting is that when I first joined State of Place, I was thoroughly enjoying my uber urban experience in London. And so for me, it was a no-brainer when Mariela asked me to join the team. But now, living in a car-oriented suburb as the mom of two small girls, State of Place's mission is that much more meaningful. It's not just about making places dynamic and cool - or creating other Londons. It's much more fundamental than that. It's about making sure we provide our children with the ability to safely and conveniently experience their communities on foot. When I hear about a 14-year-old suffering fatal injuries after being struck by a car - I just know we must do better. And design is a big (yet relatively easy) part of the solution. This is why I love that we help communities truly assess their current assets and needs so that they can identify the kinds of projects that will have the biggest impact - that will help make places safer - all while providing an added economic rationale to help them make the case for investing in better, safer places (if for some reason creating safer communities doesn't quite cut it as a reason to invest in better places!). We're helping communities translate their concerns and frustrations into actionable plans. Actually, check out how we did this for the City of Tigard!
What do you think? Are you a suburban mom (dad, grandparent, caretaker) "stuck" in the burbs? Frustrated with the lack of walkability? Concerned for your child's safety walking in your neighborhood? Or just simply an urban planner working in these kinds of communities who is striving to create better - safer - places but struggling to figure out where to start or how to get other stakeholders on board? We'd love to hear your story and feature it on an upcoming blog - and obviously, we'd also love to help!