Snowbound Community-Building

julia%20making%20snowman_blog.jpgI realize I'm about the last blogger to weigh in with an opinion on the snow.

But around the Worldchanging office today, as we shared our stories from the weekend, it became clear that being snowbound for a few days taught us a few things about our neighbors, our neighborhoods and our pace of living.

I should note that I come from the Midwest, where I took the speedy snow-removal infrastructure entirely for granted. Outside of a few truly exceptional blizzards that visit once or twice per season, snow and ice are just another reality of winter: you roll up your cuffs, carry a change of shoes to the office and keep an ice scraper in the trunk ... and definitely don't ever expect anyone to feel sorry for you. To my family and friends back home, it's absurd to talk about school closings and halted bus routes in the wake of anything less than a foot of fresh snowfall. As a result, the winter weather is practically invisible, at least from a civic standpoint.

But when your DOT doesn't have 300-plus plows at its beckon call (SDOT has 27), it becomes obvious what a big impact the weather has on a city … and all the lives within it.

For one, there was the experience of not leaving my neighborhood for a solid four days. I discovered two new restaurants, checked out streets that I rarely walk down, and built a snowman on the sidewalk. In Capitol Hill, I heard from a co-worker, there were all-night tobogganing parties, compounded with a general giddy excitement from knowing that all the people around you – for once in a high-traffic area – are your actual neighbors.

But even more eye-opening was the experience of witnessing an entire city in which walking was the primary mode of transportation. Cars drove slowly, when they drove at all. The streets were quiet. Without cars filling them up, I realized how very big the streets are … how much space we devote to this one mode of travel.

I'm not arguing that the current state of winter paralysis is some kind of Utopian wonderland. Reliable public transit is sorely missed by everyone right now. And for those who are unprepared for the cold, or had no shelter, this weekend was a real emergency.

But the break in routine was also enough to help me -- and, it seemed, many others -- envision a different kind of downtown, where most of the noise in the air comes from people, and where crowds walking down the street are the norm.

Our friend Dan Bertolet at HugeAssCity posted a similar theory:

People needed a compelling reason to break their car commute habit, and once they tried transit, they were likely pleased in ways they hadn’t expected.
When snow breaks people’s routines and gets them walking, might we expect a similar persistent effect? It seems plausible that some would learn that it really doesn’t take that long, or that it’s nice to pass slowly through their neighborhood, or that they’re less stressed when they arrive, or that the exercise feels good, or that it’s satisfying to know that their travel mode has zero environmental impact.

How did you experience the snowfall? Please share your stories in the comments below.

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