Low Carbon, and Deeply Liveable, Communities and the Death of Trayvon Martin

Apr 7, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

MIT graduate student Zach Youngerman asks an excellent question in an opinion piece in the Boston Globe: Did bad neighborhood design doom Trayvon Martin?

Of course, my lawyerly impulse is to say that clearly urban planning and local culture was not the “proximate cause” of that young man’s death – clearly the man with the gun is the place to look for that.

But Mr. Youngerman makes a very good point – a place that lacks the “eyes on the street” (to use the phrase that he quotes from the great urbanist writer Jane Jacobs), sidewalks and where there are few sidewalks transforms the fundamental human activity of walking into suspicious behavior. As Mr. Youngerman says, “. . . behavior is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting. Less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work, and the subdivision where the killing took place is designed for driving, so something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even.”

What does any of this have to do with “low carbon communities”?  Why is this grist for the blog of an environmental group?

Because, among the many tragic consequences (along with the kind of tragic incidents like the one that ended the life of Mr. Martin) of these isolating communities is deep dependence on the automobile.  As Mr. Youngerman concludes, “Maybe with a small convenience store or café in the clubhouse, Zimmerman wouldn’t have gotten into his car to go to Target. Maybe he would have walked to the clubhouse, and simply passed Martin on a sidewalk designed for him to be there.”

The connection between good neighborhood design, smarter growth, reduced driving and lowering greenhouse gas emissions is well documented by government, academics and advocates.  These liveable communities allow all residents to live their lives with a minimum of driving and create a safe place for raising “free-range kids” who can safely walk to the store and back again.  They also allow us to build smarter communities where we are not constantly in our cars producing the emissions that threaten to subject our communities to the constant hazard of extreme weather and other dangerous effects of global warming. Effects which will be especially marked in places like Florida where even inland communities face very real and looming threats to the supply of drinking water as sea levels rise and the porous stone that underlies the states and are home to its vulnerable aquifers face saltwater intrusion.

Can walkable community where there are stores on every corner, a constant flow of pedestrians and those “eyes on the street” guarantee the safety of our children and solve global warming? Of course not – but they are part of the many solutions we will need to embrace to solve these problems. And as we plan and build our future we need to truly protect all of our children and our communities by making smart and well considered decisions about how we build, grow and travel as well as how we treat each other in the dark of night.

3 Responses to “Low Carbon, and Deeply Liveable, Communities and the Death of Trayvon Martin”

  1. Claudia Duberstein

    I don’t see this neighborhood as bad design, just the opposite. It was designed for community living, with sidewalks placed where they can be viewed from the most active room in the house, the KITCHEN. You can watch your children play safely, see who is coming and going, and Bar-B-Que with everyone else on the block. Doesn’t get more community than that. This is nothing more than over intellectualizing, hoping to find some justification for an unjustifiable act.

  2. Alan Emmet

    I can’t picture that community in Sanford, but even if there had been sidewalks, Mr. Z might have reacted the same horrible way at the sight of a young black male walking along. I hate feeling that cynical.

  3. Seth Kaplan

    True enough Mr. Emmet. But people do often act differently, sometimes for the better and sometimes worse, when the street is an active place where pedestrians are not surprising and troubling interlopers and there are many “eyes on the street” from surrounding buildings. In a community with no sidewalks a person walking is either an alien presence on a street meant for cars or an intruder on a private lawn. The sidewalk is a small and linear version of the “common”, the grassy area in the center of a town, a truly public space where people are expected to be walking.