By Amy Carver, WALC Institute Project and Marketing Coordinator
The weather is finally turning in Florida. Dare I say jacket weather? Well, for those of you who aren't native Floridians you won't quite understand why we feel the need to pull out our winter jackets once the thermometer hits 70 degrees. When the local weather person announces that the high will be close to seventy, I've literally seen women wearing Ugg boots the next day. The heavens open up, the birds sing and we rejoice for a break from the heat.
This is what I would call "theme park" weather here. Not to hot and not to cold. Perfect days to be out walking or biking. My small family of three (myself and two kiddos) would love to be taking advantage of being outside and being active, but we can't. We don't have a yard where we live. We don't have sidewalks to walk down unless you include the ugly ones outside of our condo that really lead to nowhere, but the next condo building. No, in order for me to actually get to a safe walking area surrounded with activity, people AND beauty, I have to pop the kids into the minivan and drive ten minutes.
Just over the bridge from our island is a quaint little village that includes trendy shops, restaurants, art schools, a park with a stage, lots of live entertainment, coffee houses and it all overlooks the beautiful Indian River Lagoon. We have now visited this "little oasis" for the past four weekends in a row. Sometimes even on both weekend days because it is one place where both my daughter and son can agree on. It's also a Pokemon haven so my oldest enjoys walking around to collect Pokeballs and various little critters which I will never understand why he is so interested in.
Two weekends ago, I was lamenting about how perfect this place was as I was sitting on a picnic blanket on a huge open grass area that includes a stage where community concerts are hosted. I was nibbling on a sandwich I packed while watching my daughter happily doing numerous cartwheels in the grass while I also watched other families playing catch, kicking soccer balls around, walking their dogs. I could also hear other kids voices from the playground area just adjacent. It was my utopia. I pictured myself living in one of those small houses by the water or in an apartment above one of the cafes where I could just walk down a few stairs and enjoy a brisk morning walk with my miniature schnauzer, but then reality hit me hard. As much as I love this beautiful area where my blood pressure literally goes down, I can't afford to live there. Quite frankly, I can't afford to even dine in the restaurants that line the walkways. I started to feel sad and a bit upset that this utopia could only be available to my kids and me just on a visit. By the time I could save enough for a down payment to live there, my kids will be off to college and it would take every penny I had.
The island I live on was built with really no rhyme or reason it appears. We are located adjacent to a huge tourist area and yet, we do nothing to help increase the traffic from that area to ours other than having a bus system. Every structure is built far apart. You may have a church, walk a few blocks, then a strip mall, walk another few blocks and a restaurant, walk another block etc. In between some businesses you have abandoned buildings that have seemed to sit there for years unoccupied. There is really no central gathering place other than a mall which just went bankrupt. Stores are closing by the minute it seems. It's all really a shame.
We have no safe walking or biking paths. Where sidewalks begin, they end just as quickly and pick-up in another spot. Our parks on not connected. In order to get from one to another you must drive on busy roads or take side streets if you can find them. If we have walking paths, they are quite hidden and only available at local parks you must drive to. My little town has a population of less than 40,000 people and it is an eclectic mix of seniors who have lived here all their lives to young families and those that may have discovered us on vacation. The area on the island that has "money" is finally getting a road diet and placing bike lanes in; however the section is so very small. Maybe a beginning? Maybe some hope? For it to reach where I physically live it will take a great deal of time and community or private investment. So what can I do to get the ball rolling as one person?
My next steps will be to connect with others that have the same vision. Connect with people and provide ideas on how a step towards envisioning livability can benefit not just the minds and spirit of the community members, but the pocket books of our local area businesses. Sometimes it just takes people realizing what investing in themselves and their community really can do. Maybe I'll work with a few local area businesses and create a pop-up event that would include bike lanes. Maybe I'll share with a local representative of the benefit of opening up one of those abandoned buildings and hosting a farmer's market.
Sometimes, it takes more nudging. The WALC Institute believes in showing people what is possible. I am my own advocate for my community, for mine and my children's futures. I personally subscribe to "if they will build it, they will come." Not everyone can understand what the potential can be of an area until you show it to them. Spell out the domino effect. Take them by the hand and lead them to the vision. I may not see huge change in the short term, but every journey begins with one step. I just need a few more people who want to walk with and beside me.
So what about you? What are you going to do to bring change to your community? What do you think is possible?