In an era largely dominated by the automobile, communities such as Germantown may be on the right track. The right walking track, that is.
Used by architects and urban planners, the website “Walkscore.com” calculates just how walkable specific cities and neighborhoods are to live in. Once an address is entered, the website offers a score from one to 100 based on the accessibility of services and resources available by foot from the specific location.
Out of the 56 neighborhoods listed for Philadelphia, Germantown is ranked as No. 24, with an average walk-score of 76. According to the website, Germantown’s score is two points higher than the average Philadelphia score of 74.
Robert A. Seeley, owner of the website “Discover Germantown,” has lived on Harvey Street for over 40 years and is an active member of West Central Germantown Neighbors. While his website offers a general overview of the area, Seeley said his current interest and opinions have moved toward issues concerning neighborhood design and community planning. He said he believes that the pedestrian orientation of Germantown is one of the area’s greatest strengths and has even written essays regarding its importance to the future.
“I know that we’ve got to be able to have neighborhoods where people can go to the store and get what they need and even walk to work in the future, because that’s how we’re going to save a lot of fuel,” Seeley said. “So in that sense, I get kind of inspired by the neighborhood.”
Seeley said he started really thinking about the issue a few years ago when he had an appointment with a life insurance agent and realized that he could not physically get to the office without a car. Seeley said that while the suburban developments he had to drive through to get to the office were nice, they were completely dependent on the availability of automobiles.
“Nobody thought about how these people are going to get to the store if their car breaks down or if the price of gas goes up $10 a gallon, whereas here you get to the store by walking out the front door and walking to it,” Seeley said. “And in a well designed urban neighborhood, that’s what you do.”
According to Walkscore.com, Seeley’s own address at 141 W. Harvey St. attains a walk-score of 82, which the website categorizes as “very walkable.” While he recognizes that his own home is in a very walkable location, Seeley said he also believes that the rest of Germantown is more walkable than some of its residents may realize. He said he would like to create a “Germantown Challenge,” motivating local residents to cook a meal with only ingredients found in the neighborhood.
“I can do that, and I think most people could do that without any difficulty,” Seeley said. “But a lot of people don’t realize you can do that.”
Located at 146 W. Walnut Lane, the Green Tree School also holds a walk-score of 82. Robina Hopkins teaches at the school and utilizes its walkable location in order to better immerse her students in their surroundings. She said she often walks her class to places where they can learn to exchange money and engage in other life-skills activities.
“We walk with our class to the produce store at least a couple of times a week, and sometimes we walk to Vernon Park,” Hopkins said.
Tom Sharpless, a resident of Germantown for 21 years, also enjoys the pedestrian environment of the area and said he usually walks at least three miles a day.
“I have a car,” he said. “But I mostly walk everywhere anyway.”
Sharpless said that his daily walks with his dogs are what keep him alive and enjoys the easy access he has to parks and open space.
“Being able to walk down to the Wissahickon is one of the great amenities of Germantown,” he said.
Architect Lawrence McEwen has been teaching urban design at Drexel University for the past 25 years. On the first day of class, he said he takes a poll of how many students have grown up in the country, city or suburbs. He said a few people usually raise their hands for the country and the city, but the majority of his students have grown up in the suburbs.
“But if you ask them where they want to live, there’s not so many hands anymore for the suburbs,” McEwen said.
Though a current resident of Chestnut Hill, McEwen has done multiple projects within the Germantown area. One of his designs includes the visitor and educational facilities at the Wyck Historic House and Garden, located at 6026 Germantown Ave.
McEwen said that the main reason he has chosen to live and work in the area is because he believes in communities like Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.
“I know a lot of people that want to be here because this is the kind of community that many of us believe in,” McEwen said. “If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you just see the efficiencies of these developments.”
McEwen said that communities such as Germantown and Chestnut Hill are not only more walkable and sustainable, but also offer a greater range of mobility in terms of houses and residencies. In the suburbs, he said that areas are usually arranged according to income levels. This means that if a family in the suburbs has to relocate to either a bigger or smaller residency, they often have to migrate to a completely different area and neighborhood, distancing themselves from previous friends, schools and religious organizations.
“So really the mobility in the suburbs is not actually as good for a lot of things as you’d think,” McEwen said. “Although you can get in your car and seem to have a lot of options, it really requires big shifts in terms of physical distance.”
Seeley also sees this financial range as one of Germantown’s strengths.
“It’s very diverse,” he said, “not just ethnically, but in financially composition. We basically have people of every
income level that live someplace in the neighborhood.”
Seeley’s essay The Virtues of Age, published in Row House Magazine, dismisses the notion that every city neighborhood fits either a very rich or very poor stereotype.
“Many city neighborhoods, like my block, are affordable, pleasant places to live,” he wrote. “In the future, we will need more such places.”