Walking: Speed, Detail and Architecture

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On the average a person walks at three to five miles an hour.

Many people complain about the US and it’s recent lack of significant architecture. Cookie cutter houses fill the suburbs, businesses look are distinguished from there signs far away, but up close the big box stores designs are very similar. As such, when I am searching for something to draw, finding architecture in the US can be difficult.

Buildings are designed to be attractive at the speed and distance at which someone is traveling and sees them. Suburbia is all the same because at thirty miles an hour it doesn’t matter and individualized designs cost the builder more money. I’ve read in a few architectural articles that this is factored into design in suburban neighborhoods.

But if a building is in a place that people walk and cycle past it needs more character to draw them inside. As result, those homes look different as well. They have to have more detail.

Both are mostly a matter of preference I suppose; it’s just interesting to note that most of the beautiful structures are placed in pedestrian areas – or areas that used to be pedestrian anyway.

It was an interesting discovery in my research into America’s missing walking paths. People often complain about the loss of detail and architecture – but rarely have I heard many explanations as to why they are missing.

Could it be that we have done it to ourselves?

Missing Walking

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Growing up, I remember walking to school and walking home. Sometimes I rode my bike. We lived near the school in most places, so the walks were never more than a few blocks.

I have been a bit disappointed looking around neighborhoods in the US today – I wonder if this will ever be possible for my kids when they go to school someday. The streets have a lot of traffic and the drivers go fast and don’t pay attention.

It’s sad because I honestly enjoyed walking or when I went to middle school and it was a bit further away – biking to school.

Living in China and Japan it was easy to go weeks without needing a car. In China I took cabs occasionally, rented bikes but walked most places. When I first moved to Changsha, the school I taught at was under construction and there was no way to get to my apartment except to walk. Theft was high and other teachers had regularly had their bikes stolen, so I didn’t bother. I rented a bike a few times, but mostly walked the two kilometers to the nearest bus stop. About six months after moving there, the road was finished and there was a bus stop about half a kilometer away.

Even after this bus stop was put in, I found myself often walking down the long way to the other stop. The walk simply gave me more time to think.

I would take the bus through the long neighborhoods for about fifteen minutes, but often get off and walk along the river to wherever it was I was going. I fell in love with it again.

In Japan, I would regularly walk 10-12 miles on a given day, once again on the river, just enjoying the journey.

When we moved back to the US, I felt like my freedom had been curtailed. There were very few places to just walk. Which was why I was excited to discover all the expansions being made on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. I might have to drive to it, but finally, once again, here was a place to just unwind, think and walk. San Antonio has gradually been expanding it’s walking trails and now there is a long ring of trails that will eventually ring around the center of the city, following the creeks and rivers throughout the city.

The picture above is from one of those trails. Maybe Americans can do walking well after all.

Walkability

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One of the biggest reasons we chose to live on the base is for the walkability that it provides.

The US is extremely dependent on cars. We need cars to get everywhere. In most neighborhoods in the US you even have to drive to go to the gym in order to exercise.

But when I moved to China, I walked everywhere for four years. Sometimes I took the bus, but often, I found that if I planned ahead (about an hour) I could walk downtown. This was a great thing to discover because I studied Mandarin twice a week downtown, and sometimes those classes were during the infamous 4:30-6:30 rush hour. I found that by walking instead of taking the bus I usually got home around the same time as I would if I had taken the bus. Occasionally I rented a bike, but for the most part I walked everywhere I went the whole time I lived there.

When we moved to Japan, I had the option of driving, and did sometimes, but often would walk to the train stop or the bus stop and would take public transit. I had a bike at this point, and often rode my bike, but still ended up walking much more than I did in the US.

On base, with a toddler, I actually find it much easier to walk or bike on the base than to put my son in a car seat, get him out put him back in and struggle with him in a parking lot. To be honest, walking is just easier.

Growing up, I always walked or rode my bike to school unless it rained. I hope someday in the future we’ll be able to still walk or bike with our kids to their schools.

HBO Streaming

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HBO just announced that it will offer streaming next year: no cable connection required.

This is a possible game-changer in TV connection in the US. Cable has long dominated the television industry, offering more and more stations with less and less actual useful content. For years now, it has seemed that the more stations you had, the less likely there would be that anything interesting would actually be on those stations.

We got rid of cable and haven’t missed it. Between Netflix, Hulu and iTunes, there really hasn’t been anything we have missed. But I have wondered how long it would be until the TV stations realized they were in trouble.

A la carte stations and shows make it easier to tailor your TV habits. Even better would be (as iTunes has though rather expensive) subscriptions to just the particular shows you want to watch, tailoring everything to individual needs.

It’s a shift in the industry, yes. But a shift in a good direction. Hopefully other TV stations and TV shows will follow suit.

Urban Digital Libraries

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When I was a kid I used to love the idea of a house filled with books. There would be bookshelf upon bookshelf in the house much like Belle’s library in Beauty and the Beast.

I’m now trying to get rid of more of the paper books we do have and taper down more, getting rid of bookshelves. It’s not that I don’t love the books – it’s that space is a premium.

It’s a modern conundrum – you can have a larger house and more space or you can have a walkable neighborhood. But rarely both. So we opted for the smaller “house” (one side of a duplex).

So a library with shelves of books – not going to happen, as nice as that would be to look at. I have completely abandoned two and a half entire paper libraries in three countries already, much to my frustration, due to weight and space.

It was amazing to me to be able to take a good sized library with me when I taught in Mongolia for two months. That trip and the two months I spent in Nagasaki right after, teaching as well, revolutionized my opinion on digital books. In Nagasaki in particular, I lived in an apartment that was about 100 square feet. There was no space for any extra books.

The truth is, whether or not it ends up that paper or digital is a person’s preference, the convenience of digital is slowly (and quickly) changing the face of the literary industry as a whole.

Mobility

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One of the biggest reasons that the people who prefer digital reading have stated for the preference is mobility.

Note the picture above – which is easier – carrying ten or more textbooks, (which I remember doing regularly on journeys back and forth from China, Japan and Thailand) or this one device?

Beyond that, if you lose a book or it gets delayed which happens occasionally in transit, which was why I as a paranoid grad student used to pack my textbooks in my carryon, you are stuck. Digital books however can be loading to multiple devices, diversifying the chances of loss and the potential expenses of having to rebuy a book.

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While at A&M University I was glad that most of my textbooks were available on the Kindle. Considering I wrote a papers more than once in the Singapore Airport on my iPad – the possibility of completing a program with anything else just wouldn’t have been feasible.

According to statistics, urbanization and migration are on the upswing, both resulting from increased globalization and industrialization. This is unsurprising.

The cost of shipping, especially when the move is temporary has started to expedite the mobile classes purchase of digital devices.

Practically speaking then, the more mobile and urban society gets, the more likely the digitalization of literacy is to continue.

Is this good, bad or neutral? Probably some of all. Like most things, it’s difficult and way too soon to say.

Increased mobility is likely to fuel more digital book and publication innovation. One of the most useful future features added to this digital/commuter paradigm is the ability to link up audio and digital books. This means that a commuter can listen to the book they are reading in the car on the way to work, read it digitally on their lunch break, and then listen more on the way home – without having to figure out where their place in the book is, the book will sync automatically. Given long commutes that people often find themselves taking, this would be a great benefit. Amazon is constantly pushing for better user integration, and the possibilities are pretty extensive.

It was also nice while commuting in Japan on the trains (and buses etc) to simply be able to pull up any book I might be reading at home on my iPhone at any point during the trip. Or if I was waiting for something – a long line by myself etc.

Digital books are changing travel and commutes.

The Long View

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Yesterday, I mentioned the Princeton paper that cited the studies done to justify moving from print to digital in test-taking. This study, covering decades of research noted that while digital and print are different mediums they are largely a matter of user preference (see page 19).

The main reason I find this particular paper so interesting is that it was conducted in 2008. This was right after the Kindle had been released (November 2007) and before the ensuing panic hit the print publishers. Amazon (though likely unintentionally) disrupted the publishing world as we knew it. Democratizing publishing in a way that demanded the whole structure change, the Kindle and digital reading in general became a lightning rod of debate.

Here’s breakdown then – testing companies benefit greatly from computerized tests. They are faster, more customizable, easy to maintain and quick to grade. Publishing companies however, lose money when it comes to digital publishing. So testing complained have vested interest in digital and publishing companies have vested interest in print. So the studies coming out pre-digital revolution argued for digital to a greater degree than the studies coming after in large degree because those with vested interest were different.

So what is the answer? It’s probably much more complicated than we will be able to decide in even the next couple decades. From the Princeton paper and others it appears that different parts of the brain are used with each – in other words, each may have their benefits and drawbacks, and we are likely to have a hybrid system of the two for a long time.

Traditionalist will swear by print and Futurists digital, but the cast majority of people are in the middle and will remain so, slightly skeptical of digital, but gradually embracing it over time.

Ethical questions on privacy and copyrights are likely to get more intense and studies will continued to be skewed to prove assumptions.

I suspect however, that just as the switch from oral literary traditions to print didn’t happen instantly and universally, so this change will be a slow one as well, and good or bad we will adapt to it.