Profile in Ottawa Citizen, by Julie Oliver (1997)
[Transcribed from the Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, November 2, 1997,
p. B3, in the column, “Julie Oliver’s Ottawa”]
Some of Chris Bradshaw’s ideas, at first, seem crazy. Sell your
car and hit the pavement on foot? How would you get to work? Or
carry your groceries? Or drop the kids to hockey practice?
Here’s another one: Cars are killing communities and
neighbourhoods and literally taking the life out of us. (Mr.
Bradshaw god rid of his car a few years ago.)
But listen — his ideas make sense. Luckily, his solution is
surprisingly simple: walk.
After retiring from Ottawa[-Carleton]’s planning department two
years ago, Mr. Bradshaw, 53, took up consulting. In 1988, he
founded Ottawalk, a group to promote walking as an alternative
means of urban transportation, and is working on a “walkability
index” of the Ottawa-Carleton region, the early conclusions of
which he first presented to the 1993 International Pedestrian
Conference in Boulder, Colorado, in 1993.
Ironically, his first job after graduation from university was
working on a General Motors line.
Q. What have be lost by “over-embracing” the automobile?
A. I was as fascinated with cars as the next person, as a young
man growing up, and the car was one of the leading technologies
of the time. It’s through my work with community associations
that I became a student of community and it’s when you put
these two together that you realize cars cause a loss of
community, the loss of what I call “propinquity.” People who own
a car are, in fact, compensating for the lack of propinquity in
Q. Do you mean they’re just not close to things in their area
that they need, but that there’s some social disconnection as
well — a vacuum in their lives?
A. Yes. For example, in most cases people will drive to stores
that are bigger, with more selection and lower prices. That is
the one-two punch, which is an explanation for the driving. The
third, one, of course, s that there’s a parking space at the
other end, which your local store never provided for you. You
have to park on the street, and parallel parking is a drag. We
all know that. What helped me realize this is the writing of
William Whyte, who’s a guy who wrote, back in the 1950’s a book
called _Organization Man_ [but the following ideas are from his
1989 book, _City: Rediscovering the Center_].
Whyte found out that, when companies moved out of the city to the
suburbs, the officers were always located within a five-minute
drive of the home of the CEO, even though the result was that the
bulk of the employees could no longer take the subway or train to
their office. They now had to drive.
Then he went on to show how these companies did worse financially
over the next 10 years than the ones who stayed in New York City
(despite the higher rent or land costs).
His theory was the companies that stayed retained the on-street
ambiance and the chance of this serendipitous connecting that
occurs by meeting in parks and on sidewalks. You have limited
the amount of meeting complete strangers (in the suburbs). It’s
usually re-meeting people you know, but (in the city) there’s
also the triangulation factor, which is while you’re talking to a
person you already know a third party comes by that one of the
two of you knows and you continue to build your network in that
way. So, whereas in these suburban locations, you would tend to
be very close to just people in your own company and lose your
contact with your customers, to some extent, who would now have
to be met by formal appointments.
When we (live in the suburbs) everything becomes propulsive [I
said, purposive] we make appointments, we travel one way or
another with tinted glass in our windows, we move very quickly.
We know we can shut out things in our life if we don’t want them
anymore. We shut out relationships if we break up with someone.
In a small town, you would continue to see that person after you
broke up with them, for example. The way you would conduct
yourself in relationships in far more sustainable.
What you see in many ways with the creation of shopping centres
has been the stores’ desire to download the most expensive part
of getting goods to customers. They didn’t want to ship the
goods to 250 small little general stores throughout the city
which were within walking distance for people; they want the
people to come to them. They cut out the need for warehouses.
We don’t realize that, when these big retailers come in, we not
only lose a lot of small-retail jobs, we also lose the jobs we
used to have in warehouses.
Q. Little shops don’t offer those lower prices and parking spaces.
So what are we losing, besides those jobs?
We’re missing the fabric of our life. It’s the fact that we
don’t feel connected any more. This is right from (urban
philosopher) Jane Jacobs, when she talked about how the actual
surveillance of streets comes (not from police, but) from people
walking along the street and people who look out onto the street.
We’ve not only reduced the number of people on the street, we’ve
reduced people’s interest in looking out onto the street.
Any why? Houses and buildings are all moved farther back from
the street (to accommodate cars).
I have seven scales of life that I developed in my writing, from
the global to the individual. They are: global, national,
city/region, neighbourhoods, street, family, and individual.
What’s happened is that two of those scales have become almost
totally redundant: the neighbourhood and the street. They’ve
atrophied. The shops have moved to the city level, out of the
neighbourhood level, because now you have to drive to them and
the social supports of your neighbours (on the street level) have
drawn down to the family level.
Realize what neighbours are for. They take stress off your
family life. Realize that you’re going to give back to your
children freedom that your know is necessary. In one British
town, for example, they asked parents in 1970 and in 1990 at what
age they would let their child walk alone. In 1970, they said
age six; in 1990, they said age 12. That’s six years that a
child is held back. This is because we’ve withdrawn. You don’t
know your neighbours, so your don’t trust them [to watch your
Community policing and neighbourhood watch and block parent
programs are meant to put back, in a contrived, formal way, what
existed informally before — the neighbours looking out for you.
People say, “Oh. I have a car. Now I can keep in touch with my
family.” But we know that the existence of the car allowed
family members to move away in the first place.
Q. What is the best city you have visited in terms of community?
A. I’ve never been overseas, but I’ve traveled a lot in North
America, and the cities that are favourites with me are the ones
that have the greatest ambiance for walking. When I visit my
wife’s family in Long Island, I go into the city. New York is
definitely one of my favourites — a bit scary, but very alive.
I would also place Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco up
there. Portland in a leader in tackling the problems of
urbanism, and Ottawa[-Carleton] has taken a major step with the
new official 25-year plan that I had some influence on, even
though I wasn’t the planner. It was just adopted in July of this
year, and there’s a statement in there which I lobbied for that
says, “the plan promotes communities in which one does not need a
Q. What have you gained from giving up your car?
A. I was in many ways, more ready for it than the average person,
but the main thing is I’m more relaxed walking. You are simply
more in control of your life when you walk. You’re saving money,
but primarily you are physically (more in control), if your just
look at the laws of physics, you can stop and start, go both
directions on all the streets. There are also no one-way streets
when you’re walking. When you walk you look at the faces of the
car drivers and you see they are the most anxiety-laden people.
Q. How far would you estimate you walk during one week?
A. I don’t keep track of it, but just commuting every day to work
would be about six kilometres, so probably around 50 kilometres a
Q. Apart from obvious health benefits, what does it do to a
community to have people out walking?
A. Walking has to be a practical trip. Quite a bit of our walking
today is if you have a [dog]. But other than that there aren’t
too many excuses to walk in a city.
Communities that have those local destinations (shops [and
services]), when the sidewalks are built up and maintained,
they’re the walking communities where no one could come in and
rip off a home, because (thieves) see people at their windows or
people walking up and down the streets. I mean, it’s nice the
way our suburbs have evolved — the thieves now can work a day-
In the typical home in the Glebe where I live, the window’s
forward, the parking is to the rear, there’s smaller lots. I
would say from the front of my house, there’s probably ten times
as many people noting if someone were to take a sign off my yard
than there would be in the suburbs. The garage is forward in the
suburbs, the lots are twice as wide, there’s no porches on the
front. These are all things that are being identified by the new
urbanism movement in architecture and planning: to get back to
the traditional way we structured our cities.
When I say get propinquity in your life, I’m saying get your life
together geographically speaking, spatially together.
Realize that, when you have a car, the people who have more power
in your life will immediately expect you to use that car to
recoup their propinquity at the expense of yours. Doctors locate
[next to] your hospitals, not in your neighbourhood anymore.
Lawyers locate near the courthouse, and they want you to go come
there and pay the parking. So, with your car, you’ve now lost
some of your freedom — and not only because of other people
expecting you to supplant their propinquity.
There’s not only the mechanics of the car, but there are the
intersections and one-way streets, and the complexity of your
trip increases. Any one of those things go wrong, you’re held
up. Why do you need it? There’s a financial interest to promote
these things. There’s only one magazine on walking. How many
magazines are there [on] cars?