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Walking South

by Jay Walljasper - May 2, 2008

Everyone knows the Confederacy lost the civil war on the bloody battlefields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Today the South is losing again, this time on bloody city streets.

Pedestrians often feel they are waging their own civil war to claim the right move about town safely. And they are being inflicted with the most casualties in the states of the old Confederacy, according to statistics from the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership appearing in National Geographic's Glimpse magazine.

The nine cities ranking worst for pedestrian fatalities (based on 2002-2003 figures) were located in the South—indeed the top four were all in Florida.

Meanwhile the South claimed only one of ten cities ranked highest for people commuting to work on foot by the 2000 U.S. census, according to Glimpse.

Many cities in the South grew fast during the 1970s, '80s and '90s—a time when most urban planners dismissed walking as an outdated relic of the past. Subdivisions were built with no thought of sidewalks, and vehicle traffic was routed onto wide, high-speed roads, which are very perilous to cross on foot or bicycle. Even when sidewalks were included, oftentimes there were no trees or nearby buildings to offer shade, which left pedestrians baking in the sun. Hot weather, it seems, may be more deterrent to walking than ice and snow.

The New Urbanist architectural movement sprang up in reaction to this kind of short-sighted suburban development, and it's no surprise that its first major triumph was in Florida—a new town called Seaside designed by Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who drew inspiration from classic walkable Southern towns like Key West and Charleston. Seaside was immediately successful and showed real estate developers across the country how important it is to make accommodations for pedestrians in new communities.

The South remains a leader in New Urbanist development, offering hope that communities across region are on the road to becoming safer, more pleasurable places to walk—which will go a long way towards making them more environmentally friendly.