Walking Schools and Community

There is neighbourhood group centred around one of the parks near our house.  It is not one of the city’s official neighbourhood groups, because there are too many limitations on these organizations.  It is simply a group of neighbours who gather to make an icerink or have a community BBQ or run free soccer for kids, and it is by far the most active and functional neighbourhood group in the city.

My wife was talking to a member of this group at the park the other day, and he suggested that the neighbourhood around this park was so strong partially because its school is still exclusively a walking school, so that most of the parents in the area see each other twice a day, five days a week.  He was explaining that this sense of community is what makes the school’s PTA so strong, but I think that it also goes a long way toward explaining why the city’s most active and most independent neighbourhood group is centred around the closest park.  There are only two walking schools left in the city, both of them less than ten minutes walk from my front door, and I do not think it is any coincidence that both of them are also within easy walking distance of a strong and effective neighbourhood group.

It is not that there is anything especially magical about walking schools.  They are merely what forces people in our area to walk through their neighbourhood, passing each other’s houses, meeting each other in the street, talking with each other on the school’s front lawn.  This function could be performed by many things, by a church or a community centre or an employer, but it is a function that is no longer performed by anything in many of our communities.  The walking schools bring otherwise isolated people into the street, makes it possible for them to encounter one another.

Even though my children do not attend the school, many students and parents pass by my house every day, where I am usually sitting on my front porch with a coffee, and I have come to know many of them over the last few years, some of them so well that they will beg a cup of coffee from me if they have not had the time to make their own.  My children know them too, shouting and playing and arranging times to meet in the park.  Once my eldest even put up a stand to give the kids free lemonade on their way home from school.

When people interact in this way, not occasionally, but continually, as a part of the way they live, the natural outcome is that a sense of community will develop.  It will be impossible to avoid this development.  It will lead us on the way community, however much we try to avoid it.

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4 comments
  1. Lauren said:

    Our subdivision is packed full of young families, and there are two large elementary schools that back onto the street that runs behind our house. Every day when school lets out, that street is full from one end to the other with cars that pick kids up and then drive them to homes not that far away in other parts of the subdivision.

    I’m sure there are still lots of kids that walk home from school (with or without their parents) but a rather high percentage of them seem to be picked up and dropped off, for whatever reason. It makes me kind of sad, and reading this post makes me think that a “walkable” school doesn’t always turn into a “walking” school. I’m glad you’ve managed to find (or build) such a great community in your area.

  2. Lauren,

    Yes, I agree: a walkable school does not imply that people will actually walk to it. There is a culture of the car at work, especially in the suburban sub-division, that undermines even the best of intentions.

  3. John Jantunen said:

    Lauren,

    I am happy to see that you added (or build) as, I think, this is the key ingredient in the creation of a great community. Walking, for its part, serves as a necessary foundation for any such community. Without people on the street actively engaged in their environment (rather than just passing through it on their way from one garage to the next) it is as impossible to sustain a sense of community as it is to explain the colour red to a person born blind. In regards to our school, Central, there is a confluence of factors that have served to force people out of their cars, not least of which is the the fact that there are only four or five parking spaces within sight of the front doors. People either walk or they risk a ticket as the rest of the street is a no stopping zone (the adjoining streets are packed with commuters working downtown). I’d like to think most people would still walk if, say, the (GD) Catholic Church would allow them to park in their lot for the five minutes it would take to pick up their kids (a big sign wired to the fence in front warns of tickets and towing for anyone foolhardy enough to interfere with God’s sacred trust) because that’s the kind of people who choose to live downtown: The people who like to use their legs, who give themselves enough time for a chat or so that they can beg a coffee from some barefooted guy wearing a paint stained shirt who always seems to be sitting on his porch (does he have a job?, they wonder, not really caring one way or the other since he brews the best cup in Guelph)and who always, while reading the lost animal posters on the light posts, think to themsevles how nice it would be if it was they who returned the missing pet to its owner. These are downtown kind of people, as averse to the suburbs as Catholics are to all things good and right, and I wonder, I do, if the people living in the West End or the South could really become more like us, and if all it would take is a few No Stopping signs in front of their schools and a crowd of people scowling when someone does anyway.

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