What Compact and Connected Means to Me

On March 23, I presented at the CNU Central Texas City Matters 20×20 panel on the subject of “Compact and Connected” and what that means to me. The format of the presentation called for a ton of pictures. This post is adapted from my presentation. Thanks to the great team at CNU for prompting me and pushing me to put this together.

To me, Compact and Connected means independence and an opportunity for personal growth. I’m rare in Austin as somebody who is eligible for a driver’s license but doesn’t have one. This is the story of how that came to be, and how much the places we live affect who we are.

I grew up in Newton, MA, a gorgeous but expensive Western suburb of Boston. My house, an 1890 Victorian, would fly through the historic landmark commission in Austin, but was typical of the city block I lived on. The place had many of the amenities that school-aged parents wanted: good schools, large lots with green lawns (9600sf), an acclaimed public library, and easy freeway access to downtown Boston.

My childhood home
My childhood home, c/o Google Maps.

Although all of our parents had moved there for the schools, to myself and my 15-year old friends, we as children were frequently bored. The first thing we wanted to do when we were old enough was get a driver’s license. To us, a driver’s license meant freedom. Freedom to see our friends on our own schedule, to go to restaurants, to go to parks, to go into Harvard Square and listen to street musicians. Freedom to explore our world.

For me, though, it was not meant to be. About the time I’d be going for my learner’s permit, I became ill. That meant two dramatic things that made a profound impact on my life for decades to come: 1) I was unable to learn to drive, and 2) I missed too much school to graduate in four years, and took a fifth year doing an alternative learn-from-home program.

During that fifth year, I felt the sense of deep isolation that car-oriented cities create. Newton was built centuries before the automobile, but the last trolley lines had been torn out decades before I was born and the city had been remade over the decades to accommodate cars. It would take me 3 hours to walk to one of my closest friends’ house and back.

Waaay too long walk to close friend and high school classmate's house.
Waaay too long walk to close friend and high school classmate’s house.

The closest grocery store was 35 minutes there and a lot longer than that walking back carrying groceries.

35+ minute walk to conventional grocery store.
35+ minute walk to conventional grocery store.

That acclaimed public library was 45 minute walk. The only commercial cluster near me didn’t offer much (pizza and a convenience store is all I remember) and closed early. Despite living in what truly was one of the most desired places in Boston, I literally couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t see old friends or make new ones, find any sort of job, or continue my education without being 100% dependent on my parents and their cars.

So, about two weeks after I graduated high school, I moved into the compact, connected community of North Cambridge. What do I mean by compact and connected? Compact: Instead of living in my parents’ 3,100sf home, I lived in a 500 sf studio apartment in a modest 24-unit corner complex.

The first apartment building I lived in.
The first apartment building I lived in.

What do I mean by compact? The houses along my new street were closer together, and multiple families shared a single house.

Houses neighboring my apartment building
Multifamily houses neighboring my apartment building.

And just as the distance between people’s homes was more compact, so too were the distances between my home and the places I needed to be. There was a grocery store 10 minutes walk from me.

10 minute walk to conventional grocery store.
10 minute walk to conventional grocery store.

There was a smaller grocery store with high-quality produce literally across the street.

Farm and Garden Center across Massachusetts Ave from my apartment building.
Farm and Garden Center across Massachusetts Ave from my apartment building.

While the public library was a bit more “compact” than Newton’s, it was literally 500 feet from my home, and I would stop by sometimes multiple times in a day.

463' walk to Cambridge branch public library.
463′ walk to Cambridge branch public library.

So, for me, compact meant the independence to be able to feed myself, take care of myself, and get an education. So, you might be asking, how does this apply to everybody else?  Not everybody finds themselves in a situation where they can’t drive. For them, does it matter whether you can get somewhere in 10 minutes on foot vs. 10 minutes in a car? If you drive, you already have the independence to take care of basic needs, even car-oriented places like Newton.

That’s where connected comes in! Newton and North Cambridge were both on public transportation routes. Here is a visual of places I could quickly reach on public transportation from my homes:

Area I could quickly travel on public transportation in Newton vs Cambridge.
Area I could quickly travel on public transportation in Newton vs Cambridge.

Cambridge’s density allowed for more frequent, better public transportation, that had a geographically broader reach than that in Newton. But that’s only a tiny portion of the story. Because Cambridge was built densely, with things closer together, that geographical reach translated into way more destinations. Here, for example, are the restaurants nearby each of my homes:

Restaurants nearby in Newton vs Cambridge
Restaurants nearby in Newton vs Cambridge

Note not only how many more there are in Cambridge, but the variety. By moving to Cambridge, I exposed myself to Tibetan, Bengali, and Nepalese food, to a little Japanese-oriented mall, and to specialty book stores. I got heavily involved in local political movements of all flavors, and heard dozens of languages spoken on the street. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to take night classes in Computer Science at a local college and find a starter job in the tech industry, without which I wouldn’t be employed as a computer programmer today.

I’m no longer the isolated kid I was, and I’m sure I could make a fine life for myself in the suburbs. But, for me, compact will always means independence, and connected will mean personal growth and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

5 thoughts on “What Compact and Connected Means to Me

  1. “Newton was built centuries before the automobile” — Well, that’s not quite true. Your parents’ house was built at roughly the same time as my house in North Cambridge, which is a few blocks from your first apartment, so in fact the two neighborhoods are fairly similar in age–and both were streetcar suburbs. The big differences are three: 1) North Cambridge was lucky enough to get the Red Line extension in the early 80s; 2) North Cambridge is closer to places that were more densely settled longer ago (much of Cambridge really was built centuries before the automobile, and Harvard Square is only about a mile and a half away from North Cambridge); North Cambridge was largely a working class neighborhood, and so was built denser and smaller than Newton. But your point is well-taken: cities gain a lot from being compact.

    1. Quite true! Newton was *founded* centuries before the automobile, but my old house was built in 1890. I lived close to the Newton/Brighton line and it was amazing to see how the houses and lots got so much smaller the second you crossed into Brighton.

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