The Tuscaloosa Astonishment (And What It Means For Towns All Over)

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   I came to Tuscaloosa, Alabama on a gig 16 months ago unsure how long I could do it because it’s so much less urban than South Beach, but have been absolutely astonished by what I’ve learned. I’m the part-time interim University Planner at the University of Alabama, and it was never clear how long the gig would last, but assuming it would be longer than a month or two, I knew I’d have to get back to South Beach regularly to spend time with Wanda & the pups and get my dose of urbanism. So I negotiated to work 10 days a month and offered to cover lodging & travel so I could go back  forth to Miami whenever I needed to.
   We decided to rent a small loft apartment in an old bank building downtown rather than living out of hotel rooms, so Wanda and I drove the car up to Tuscaloosa the first Sunday/Monday of October, precisely 16 years after moving to Miami. She helped me set up the loft that week, then went back home to Miami.

   Ever since moving our business home in January 2014, we realized that while our condo is a wonderful place to live at 747 square feet, it’s just a little too small to live and work, especially with all my books. While I was home over the holidays, we realized that if Wanda came to Tuscaloosa, it would be a perfect time to stage the condo so it would show better. So she spent a couple months getting it ready & joined me in Tuscaloosa in late March.

   It quickly became clear that running our business here would save around $2,600/month, which to us is big money. So we decided to rent a historic bungalow right at the edge of downtown. We moved at the end of July and have been delighted and amazed ever since. Here’s why:

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   In the process of discovering how much we can walk to from our bungalow, we also discovered things we won’t walk to. I call these places “walking shadows,” because they’re similar to the “pedestrian shadows” thrown by mega-projects or large impenetrable institutions like a gated government facility because nobody wants to walk around them. Everything on the other side is in effect in their shadow. Walking shadows are a little different; think of them as shaded parts of the map created not by mega-projects, but by inhospitable edges. Here, they are the river on the north, railroad tracks, arterial thoroughfares, or industrial districts.
   The yellow shadows are accessible by bicycle because you can get through them faster. For example, the town center of Northport in the northwest corner of the map is accessible by bike because you can get across the bridge fast, but the heavy traffic just beside the bike lane is so scary that nobody walks all the way across. The red shadows are simply no-go zones. There might be good urbanism beyond, but after you’ve run the gauntlet of the bridge crossing or whatever, your desire to go further is pretty much spent. This is a really useful analysis technique that should be broadly used.

Click on any image below for a high-res version.

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   Our bungalow is marked Home and is at the eastern edge of downtown. As you’ll see below, this is a magical location because it puts so many things within walking reach. I’ve long said that I’ll never again live where I can’t walk to work, walk to the grocery, and walk to the pharmacy because if you can walk to the latter two, there are probably several other destinations nearby as well. My gig at the university is currently located just ⅝ mile southeast (about a 12 minute walk), and is marked Work Now. My workgroup is scheduled to move this year to the location marked Work Later, which is across a US highway and much further east. Even if not for the highway, it would be a one-hour walk each way, which really cuts into the day. So when my workgroup moves I’ll buy a bike and will spend about the same time getting there (12 minutes) as it currently takes me to walk.
   One other thing: Back in 2010 just after the Original Green book came out, I did this same exercise for our life on South Beach and dubbed it the Web of Daily Life. Back then, I showed only the most direct path to each destination, but I’ve learned since then that’s not the way Walk Appeal works. If you walk the same path every day, it can get boring, and boredom lowers Walk Appeal. So on these maps, I’m showing many different ways you can walk while traveling about the same distance. It keeps life interesting.

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   One of the main reasons I thought I couldn’t live here longterm is because there’s no grocery nearby. On South Beach, there’s a Whole Foods 4 blocks away and a Publix is ½ mile away. It took me a little while to realize there were any groceries at all, but there is a Publix northwest of the stadium. But it was about a mile from both the loft apartment and also our bungalow. I was accustomed to walking a few blocks with a bag of groceries, but… a mile?? But then I tried it. Because there are many paths to get there, it’s actually interesting. Part of that is because there are students living all along the way, doing crazy student things, and highlighting the fact that there’s nothing more interesting to humans than other humans. In any case, there’s not only the Publix, but several other specialty groceries as well. Today, the only time we buy groceries by car is in those rare times when we’ve driven to the red walking shadow for some other reason.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018