Using Our Feet To Reduce Our Footprint (1997)

Using Our Feet To Reduce Our Footprint:  The Importance of Scale in Life

Essay, as it appeared in the journal, Local Environment,
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1997, by Chris Bradshaw, Ottawa, Canada


Most people in the developed world live in cities.  This is
the population most responsible for the excessive draw on
energy and resources and the degradation of the environment
for their “lifestyle”. On the other hand, the city is a
marvelous invention that provides a great amount of human
commerce with the minimum of effort and cost needed for each
exchange.  The city has the capability to be the epitome of
efficiency and synergy: maximum power for minimum effort.  So,
what is wrong?

I began almost twenty years ago as an advocate of walking and
of proper walking environments and amenities.  I also started
the journey towards increasing my own reliance on walking. My
original focus on urban design has expanded to many other
fields in an effort to find why people don’t walk more.
Walking — and walkability — are presented here as first
steps to reforming cities and to support the aims of ‘New
Urbanism’, to focus on city design to reduce the excessive
footprint of cities and increase public life.


The contrast between the anti-urban sprawl city and the pro-
urban, exchange-oriented city becomes greatest when looking at
the role of travel in cities.  Whereas the pro-urbanism bias
seeks to design the city to reduce trip lengths to a minimum,
the anti-urbanism bias tends to favour making trips longer,
primarily to allow people to live as far from the city and its
negative impacts  as possible.  The first emphasizes access,
the second mobility.

Compare a trip made by two families in a typical city to buy a
loaf of bread and a carton of milk.  Family A lives in a
traditional neighbourhood and Family B lives in the suburbs.
Family A, sends its seven year-old for the bread and milk.  He
walks.  Family B, which has two cars and has no stores closer
than 3 km, requires one of the parents to obtain the bread and
milk.  That persons drives.  By multiplying the distance of
the trip by the mode’s footprint-per-person and that product
by a “SPAM factor” (i.e., Storage/parking requirements,
Pollution, Annoyance/anxiety, and finally Manufacturing) on a
scale of one to five, one will discover a relative difference
of about 900:1  I call the overall unit of measure the NRFUT
(“enerfoot”), or neighbourhood-radius foot-unit of travel.


Looked at another way, Family A’s trip utilized transportation
and shopping facilities that are provided at the scale of the
neighbourhood or, if there was a corner store nearby, the
street scale, whereas Family B’s trip utilized an
“infrastructure” that is city-wide.  They also evoked
additional infrastructure at the state/provincial, the
national, and the global levels: roads, traffic lights, signs,
traffic police, insurance regulation, driver certification,
the courts, energy security, pollution controls, etc.  Also
Family A’s trip contributed to family life and had no negative
impacts, while Family B’s trip caused noise and danger.

Another question of scale for these two families is visible if
we look into families’ two homes: the smaller home of Family A
requires more sharing of toys, appliances, and chores.  It
also has available nearby coffee shops and well-populated
parks for members to meet friends, reducing the privacy and
noise shortcomings of a small home.  Family B’s home, on the
other hand, is more spacious.  But the isolation of the house
means that they use the extra room for storage of food (due to
less frequent trips for buying food), larger bedrooms to
provide privacy and room for personal entertainment
appliances, and a larger number of specialized rooms, e.g.,
workout room, woodworking shop, and separate living areas for
children and adults.  The yard of Family B’s home is also
larger to provide space for more cars, a private back yard,
and a greater set-back from the street.  Much of the
difference can be interpreted as accommodation of functions
that occur in Family A’s local area.  Their lives are played
out in public and semi-public areas and are marked by greater
amounts of sharing that the parents’ higher level of home time
allows.  In Family B’s area, these must be moved into the
private domain of the home, while some of the home functions
are shifted to bedrooms, all at greater expense.

Studies should be done to show just how little Family B
actually saves after they add to their lower mortgage payments
the cost of extra cars, appliances, and user fees for special
services, let alone non-monetary costs like time and the loss
of autonomy for family members.

The problem clearly is one of scale.  Traditional life
provides a careful allocation of functions to the scales of 1)
individual, 2) family/household, 3) street/neighbours, 4)
neighbourhood, and 5) city/town.  In recent centuries, 6)
national and 7) international/global functions have evolved,
along with subunits of both (states/provinces and national
alliances/blocs).  Just as certain human developments, such a
puberty, occur at certain stages of the life cycle, functions
must occur at a certain scale for them not only to be
“efficient”, but to link with one another.

For example, when functions of the street and the
neighbourhood (yes, they are two distinct scales) are
reallocated either “down” to the family or “up” to the city
scale, usually due to decline in the quality of the “commons”
or the acceptance of their relevance by residents of those two
scales, the impacts are mainly felt by children, the elderly,
the poor and the disabled and ill.  These people, actually a
majority, become more disadvantaged since the city is now
designed primarily for the minority, the AAAs (i.e., Active,
Affluent Adults).  Not only are distances increased, but the
growth of car use degrades walking, cycling, and transit.
Functions that are shifted down from the street and
neighbourhood require a larger yard and house, and more
“conveniences” which must be purchased.

In both cases, the result is the creation of a major chasm in
the scalar hierarchy.  Rather than the scalar profile being a
bottom-heavy pyramid, similar to formal organization charts,
the scalar profile that is emerging is more like a large rock
balancing on a pedestal, precarious and expensive.  Another
way of looking at the way scales fit together is to see how
each scale refers to a particular temporal scale.  The smaller
the physical scale, e.g., individual or family, the smaller
the temporal scale in terms of the duration of the frequency
of contact with that scale:

Individual          1 second to 1 minute
Family              1 minute to 1 hour
Street              1 hour to 1 day
Neighbourhood       1 day to 1 week
City/Region         1 week to 1 month
Nation-State        1 month to 1 year
Global              1 year to a lifetime

What does this means that functions? It means that functions
should be satisfied on the basis of the frequency one needs to
access the function.  In retailing, items needed daily (such
as our earlier example of the loaf of bread and carton of
milk)should be available at the scale of the street or
neighbourhood, but not in the house or at the city/regional
scale.  Government services that are needed once in a lifetime
should not be available in the neighbourhood, but library
services or recreation services should.  In this way, the
balance is guaranteed in terms of transportation cost and
bother, on the one hand, and the need for selection (for the
customer) and turnover (for the provider), on the other.


Hierarchies are useful structures to distribute complex arrays
of functions.  They work only when certain basic principles
are observed.

1)   Put the function as close to where it is needed;
2)   Do not allow any level to become predatory over a lower
level and ensure each level is somewhat autonomous from
the level above,
3)   Ensure that the various levels respect adjacency and
interdependency, so that matters that can’t be handled at
one level move to the next level efficiently.

In this context, the scalar hierarchy of life, like the large
rock balancing on a pedestal, has failed on all counts.  When
companies fail, they disappear; when human systems fail,
people suffer and impacts persist over time. For instance,
look at the distribution of goods.  What was once available at
a corner store or even brought to the front door by a peddler
was moved to, first, main streets and (in the suburbs, to
strip malls), then to enclosed malls, and now to a combination
of “power centres” of big-box stores and by burgeoning
catalogue, tele-shopping, and the just-emerging Internet
shopping.  The control over these various outlets shifted even
more: corner stores were part of the owners’ home; main
streets and the early strip malls were mostly individually
owned, but the owner usually lived a short distance away; the
enclosed malls are usually dominated by national chains; and
the emerging merchandising options are mostly part of
international operations, many of them an extension of the

Other changes have accompanied this shift.  The transportation
costs that were once borne by the retailer have been assumed
by consumers who ignores the fact that the savings from
purchases is far smaller than their car costs.  The retail
work force has also shifted, from being local and knowing many
of the customers, to being less local and having less
responsibility.  Local stores which supported local causes and
recreation teams and encouraged customers to visit with each
other, have been displaced by ones that do not.

Why has this upward shift occurred?  Because the business world
wanted to, literally, cut out the middle people or control
them.  Advertising has taken on a larger role, to replace the
role of staff to help customers to decided on purchases using
carefully targeted appeals to status, health, and savings.
Advertising also aims at replacing customers’ reliance on
advice from friends and neighbours.  Government also went
along, seeing the suburbs as generating higher taxes and
meeting the dreams of voters as interpreted by the development
industry and sociologists and pundits.  After all, government
wanted people to also rely more on it than on the same friends
and neighbours or independent minded city administrations, and
the professionals and academics also wanted their services to
be given more weight.  Between the three, small community
functions performed by friends and neighbours were
characterized as being of too low quality and as demeaning the
recipients in the eyes of their peers.

All three “estates” disdain horizontal relationships in favour
of idealized vertical relationships directly with large
organizations.  The detachment of this new relationship was
characterized in advertising and the statements of leaders and
experts as being a better deal: more standardized and more
‘efficient’ as small, local hospitals, schools, and recreation
centres were amalgamated into “complexes”.  There was also the
promise that they would be treated more fairly as ‘consumers’,
‘citizens’, ‘clients’, and ‘students’ who were granted
‘rights’ and taught how to play their role, e.g., always look
for the lowest price, nicest packaging, and cleverest
advertising.  Peer and intergenerational relationships
described by Oldenburg are receding and”authority figures”


The worst symptom of the denigration of the local and the
horizontal relationships that are part of community is
“downloading”.  Here is where sustainability in relationships
between people and with the physical environment is most
threatened.  Here we see why people don’t sense symptoms of
societal breakdown, and why they have accepted hierarchies
that are dysfunctional.

Downloading occurs where one person’s actions impose negative
impacts on others who are intimidated from providing feedback
or imposing consequences.  The recipients of these impacts
pass on further impacts to others who they, in turn, dominate.
It’s a case of ‘man berates wife, who punishes child, who
kicks dog, who growls at cat’

This is not healthy.  For people to grow and to remain in
harmony with their physical and social environment, each
person needs to be master of his or her own learning process,
which is life-long and involves continuous cycles of actions
that further personal goals, each followed by evaluations of
feedback.  The mastery is possible at each stage because the
individual is concerned only with a world of a certain scale
and therefore an appropriate degree of complexity.  The
freedom that learning requires is primarily related to the
choice of scale of action, not so much the action itself,
because each action comes with consequences, both unrealistic
goals that miss the point of life.

What is harmful to the environment and society is that actions
are not accompanied by “response-ability”. The scale of each
action must be matched by the scale of the actor’s ability to
respond.  Otherwise, asymmetrical situations predominate and
downloading and the use of “short cuts” ensue (see the Robert
Altman movie of the same name).  Institutions, which have the
ability to take actions on a large scale, need to establish
evaluation and feedback systems, not simply rely on
advertising and public relations at the same scale.

For that they need to plan on sticking around and to care
about the fate of those they affect.  Our footprint is
therefore the product of our scale of action divided by the
scale of our ‘response-ability’.  Much supposed free
enterprise is actually trading between unequal commercial
concerns and amounts to something closer to predation and
downloading, a distinction Jane Jacobs misses in her two
“syndromes”   trader and taker   in Systems of Survival (1992)

The process of learning, personal and organizational, should
be one of a healthy cycle of what I call ‘r & r’: refraction
(acting through a medium) and reflection (contemplation of the
results and adjusting one’s “mental model” of reality).
Emerson (n.d.) in his essay, ‘Nature’, spoke of r&r processes
in this way: “The intellect searches out the absolute order of
things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the
colors of affection.  The intellectual and the active powers
seem to succeed each other, and the exclusive activity of the
one generates the exclusive activity of the other.  There is
something unfriendly in each to the other, but they are like
the alternate periods of feeding and working in animals; each
prepares and will be followed by the other.”

However, the life that most people live, AAAs as well as those
who are further down the downloading ladder, is an unhealthy
cycle of ‘R & R’: Resentment acquired while in one segmented
domain that compels the search for a Reward in another.  R and
R is a formal process dominated by two aspects.  On the one
hand, it consists of human passiveness that thrives, not on
curiosity and an eagerness to ‘make a difference’, but on
clock-like movements, at daily, weekly, and annual cycles,
between segregated domains structured by various institutions
and authority figures.  On the one hand, it consists of
various activities that provide self-rewards, paid for with
the money the employer gives people for accepting to do work
that achieves the objective of the institution.  As Alfie
Kohn, in Punished By Rewards (1993) and No Contest: The Case
Against Competition (1992), points out, the difference is
between intrinsic (internal) motivators and extrinsic ones.


Dominguez & Robin (1992) in Your Money or Your Life point out
how much of what people spend their salary on is on literally
compensation for the pressures of making the money in the
first place.  The book shows readers, in a modified workbook
format, how to break the cycle.  They not only point out how
many expenditures are related to dressing for, or getting to
the job, but how many other expenditures are incurred dealing
with the emotional “baggage”, much of which is related, I
suggest, by failures in the work environment to match power to

I see seven classes of self-rewards:

*    Relieving anxiety (usually through use of a substance)
*    Taking risks (e.g., gambling or overextending credit)
*    Diverting attention from concerns (occupying one’s mind)
*    Excluding pressures (privacy, “cocooning”)
*    Controlling others (downloading)
*    Indulging one’s “fancies” (“I’m worth it!”)
*    Impressing others

Activities (as distinct from actions — see Arendt, 1958) such
as drinking, sports, entertainment, and even driving, often
has a functional side: fitness & health, information
gathering, getting places.  However, each also can have a
secondary role as self rewards, accompanied by the thought, “I
am owed!” or “I need this!”  How many or how dazzling should
clothes be before they become rewards that impress others and
indulge one’s fancies?  Which driving behaviours simply get us
to our destination, and which intimidate others and constitute
risks for the sake of excitement and to drown out anxiety?

What distinguishes R&R from r&r is that the activities that
deliver rewards make the original problem worse by using up
time, attention, and resources needed for the refraction and
reflection that will actually lessen the pressures.  R&R
prevents the individual from dealing with a steadily
accumulating list of consequences set in motion from their
previous actions or the need to provide feedback to others for
their actions.

Further, and most importantly on a local and sustainability
sense, self-reward activities create their own symptoms that
only they can diminish, such as the sprawl that car-use
creates and nervousness that cigarette use leaves in it wake.

John Ralston Saul (1995) in Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s
Companion, and in The Unconscious Society, paints a picture of
a society whose governments, entrepreneurs, and
specialists/academicians have twisted the meanings of words to
the point that they soon come to mean the opposite or nothing.
He puts these institutions into a single entity and
appropriately calls their ascendancy “corporatism”

I have characterized it by suggesting that life has become
something closer to “mclife”: or modern, convenient life
(“convenient” ironically once meant “appropriate, fitting”).
Their coalition is held together because the “pie” they share
is growing larger at the expense of functions that should
remain more local.

This brings me to “affection”.  To me this word means a state
of a relationship in which two people agree to affect and be
affected by the other.  This is all that r & r is intended to
produce, where community is mostly people close to us in
proximity (local), where processes are simple and delivered by
those who know us (informal), and where interaction is so
comfortable and learning so easy that we don’t have to cart
deficits from one area to another for compensation or
diversion (fun), and an active and interactive society in
which we care (are empathetic) about each other.

‘Control’ should be replaced by ‘influence’, ‘Freedom’ should
not be confused with “flee-dom” (leaving a situation rather
than dealing with it) or ‘fee-dom’ (buying rather than
building something of value).  We need to champion the return
of proportion, symmetry, and connectivity in life.  We need to
realize that we have global problems because we ignored
problems when they were small and local.


What is the first step we can take to turn this situation
around?  Simple.  Walk.  Walking is the Grand Central Station
of life; it is the heart of community life, the backbone of
fitness, the centrepiece of community security, the glue of
transportation, the essence of learning and creativity (from
no less a source that the Peripatetics of ancient Greece), the
medium of romance, the humility of leadership, the heart of
social and economic justice, and the exchange medium of the
physical world.

In contrast with driving, it is balanced r&r, vs. a mode which
increases impacts while isolating the traveler from its
impacts  (ever try to get a driver’s attention after he has
sprayed road slush on your best coat?).

Without walking-scale communities, our children have no
seamless world they can “grow with”, our poor are shut out,
our ill and seniors don’t have companionship, comfort or a
place to give their gifts, as John McKnight (1995), in The
Careless Society, stresses.  He says that only communities can
see us for who we are and what we can give; institutions, on
the other hand, see us only for our deficiencies.  That
thought is a good place to start.

I am working on a “walkability index” for neighbourhoods in
our region (first presented to the 1993 International
Pedestrians Conference, In Boulder, Colorado, USA).  The
rating will allow

(1)  residents to buy in the most walkable areas (not just
for convenience, but for savings from reduced car-
(2)  local government to gear development charges and tax
rates to favour such areas (because such areas have a
smaller footprint and thus otherwise subsidize the
suburbs), and
(3)  community groups to have a clear agenda to work
toward changes that will improve their rating and
save them money and improve their local quality of

Just a dream?  Not really.  Regional government here in
Ottawa-Carleton has recently agreed not to allocate the ten
years of growth between 2011 and 2021 to the periphery of the
existing urban area, but instead to “infill” by allocating
most units to areas already with a full range of under-
utilized services, including shops and frequent transit within
walking distance.  The councillors are betting that New
Urbanism will induce people to live with a smaller footprint.
And the council has recognized that:

1)   the number of areas where one can live without a car
should increase,
2)   it will need to fund demonstration projects of innovations
that support “growing in”, and
3)   existing communities’ integrity must be protected by
ensuring the new development will be not just compatible,
but complementary.

Watch how we grow (with the emphasis on how).


Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press)
Domingues, J. & Robin, V. (1992) Your Money or Your Life(London, Penguin)
Emerson, R.W. (n.d.) ‘Nature’, in The Portable Emerson (ed. By
C. Bode with M. Cowley, 1946, new ed. 1981) (London,
Jacobs, J. (1992) Systems of Survival (Random House)
Kohn, A. (1992) No Contest: The Case Against Competition(Boston: Houghton Mifflin)
Kohn, A. (1992) Punished by Rewards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin)
McKnight, J. (1995) The Careless Society (New York:
HarperCollins, Basic Books)
Oldenburg, R. (1989) The Great Good Place: cafes, coffee
shops, community centres, beauty parlors, general stores,
bars, hangouts, and how they get us through the day (New
York, Paragon)
Saul, J.R. (1993) Voltaire’s Bastards (New York, Viking)
Saul, J.R. (1995) The Unconscious Society (Toronto, House of
Anansi Press)


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