Durable Growth

Building a neighborhood on four paws

Speck drinking from fountain

Speck drinking from fountain

It’s the day after Thanksgiving.  Between turkey sandwiches and shopping (downtown please, not the mall), no one is eager for a sermon on tempering the passion of youth or putting superannuated planners out to pasture.  So I’ll offer a lighter fare, although still with an urbanist bent.

At the recent Petaluma Urban Chat/City Repair Petaluma meeting, I spoke about the need to increase pedestrians in single-family neighborhoods.  A district may meet all the physical parameters for walkability, but if the default transportation choice is the private car, even for trips to a grocery store only a few blocks away, then the community loses. The personal connections and sense of place that can be made from sidewalk meetings are lost.

Thus, it’s important not only to provide good sidewalks but also to create the social conditions which cause the sidewalks to be used.  A City Repair project can meet that need.  But there are other approaches that also work.  My neighborhood recently experienced one.

Speck was a black cat, aging but unbowed, and adamantly unwilling to become a housecat in his later years.  When his owner moved into an apartment across the street, Speck quickly established that his domain extended far beyond the apartment.  It was the continuation of his life-long wanderings.  His owner would later tell stories of Speck being gone for days from earlier homes, including hopping into strangers’ cars for extended field trips.

In our neighborhood, Speck would visit homes on both sides of the street for several blocks around.  I would chat with neighbors who thought that they had a special bond with Speck, telling how he would wander in their open front doors and make himself at home.  They were disillusioned to find that Speck did the same at many homes.  But they still appreciated his attention.

My wife and I recently did home improvements.  One day, the contractor needed frequent access through the front door, so my wife secured our two large dogs upstairs, behind a line of chairs.

Construction oversight

Construction oversight

Speck wandered in the open front door, supervised the contractor for awhile, and then took a tour of the house as I watched with amusement.  When he passed by the foot of the stairs, the dogs set up a howl from their barricaded location at the top of the stairs.  Speck gave them a casual, dismissive glance and continued his leisurely exploration.  If feline anatomy allowed paw gestures, Speck would have made one.

Nor was his superior attitude toward dogs limited to our canines.  A neighbor told a story of Speck, having gained the high ground in the initial encounter, chasing a large dog and the dog’s owner down the sidewalk.

He showed more respect to cars, but still not deference.  Our street is an often-used route to the local high school, seemingly putting Speck at risk from teen-aged drivers.  But he learned a survival strategy.  He never darted into the street, but neither did he defer his crossings until after the opening bell.  Instead, he’d wait for a moderately-sized gap in traffic and then begin his deliberate crossing, trusting cars to stop in time.  They always did.

Sometimes the drivers would look at me in exasperation.  I would mouth “Not.  My.  Cat.”  But with Speck nosing at my pant leg and looking for an ear scratch, it wasn’t a plausible denial.

The key point in all of this is that neighbors talked more with neighbors.  Whether it was to ask where Speck lived or to share stories of Speck’s wanderings, he became a conversation starter.  I chatted with neighbors from blocks away who I’d never met, but who knew Speck well.  The little guy made the key neighborhood introductions in his own way.

You may have noted that I’ve been writing of Speck in the past tense.  Two weeks ago, after years of taking his chances crossing the streets, he curled up on a neighbor’s front porch and died of old age.  Everything considered, it was a good end, better than many of us had feared.

The woman on whose front porch he passed away knew Speck well, as we all did.  But she didn’t know where he lived.  It took the neighborhood grapevine several days to make the connections.  But the grapevine worked and Speck’s owner was able to claim him at the animal shelter.  His ashes will be coming home to the street on which he prowled for so long.

As one neighbor wrote to Speck’s owner, “Speck visited us when we first moved in.  And he visited us on the day we put up our “For Sale” sign.  It was as if he was telling us that he’d been here when we arrived and would be here after we were gone.  I’m sad that he was wrong on the latter point.”

Did Speck turn our neighborhood into an interconnected, urban paradise?  No.  Creating that kind of neighborhood takes many steps.  But Speck took us a step in the right direction.  Which was a fine accomplishment for a little black cat.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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