We introduced our daughter to Home Alone this month, one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. (Now we watch it almost every day, because that's how things go with a five-year-old.)
It was the first time I'd seen it in years, and amid the emotional melange of rekindled childhood memories, good-hearted laughs, happy tears, and a heart bursting with holiday spirit, I noticed something I'd never given much thought to before: One reason eight-year-old Kevin McCallister gets along just fine on his own is that he can walk just about everywhere he needs to go — to the grocery store, pharmacy, church, and a bustling village green.
It's not Hollywood fantasy, either: The real McCallister mansion — at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Ill., a very wealthy suburb north of Chicago — has a WalkScore of 79, meaning most errands can be accomplished on foot.
The house was built in 1920 — in the heart of the streetcar suburb era, which was a golden age for walkable American neighborhoods that combine urban density and proximity with leafy-street livability. It's not even a quarter mile to the grocery store, and there really is a church at the end of the street (though they filmed those scenes at a different church nearby).
And as Kevin races home after accidentally shoplifting a toothbrush, he crosses over commuter rail tracks—meaning he could probably even take an unchaperoned trip into downtown Chicago if he really had to.
I was a latch-key kid when Home Alone came out in 1990, which is one reason Kevin's solo survival and heroics enthralled me then and now. I didn't grow up in a very walkable area—there were no sidewalks, and cars sped down our narrow road — so my known universe was confined to backyards and driveways (though I could at least explore on my bike).
But my grandmother lived in an old Massachusetts mill city, with little postage-stamp yards, wide sidewalks, and a corner store—where, every so often, she would send me and my cousin to buy a gallon of milk or loaf of bread. The feeling of independence we got from those errands was intoxicating and exhilarating as a kid, and that two-block walk could feel like an adventure of Homeric proportions.
Decades later, my wife and I made a very conscious choice to buy a home in a walkable neighborhood—our kid will always walk to school, and we can all stroll safely to playgrounds, restaurants, stores, and virtually all of her friends' houses. But the freedoms and daily surprises of a city sidewalk are something fewer and fewer American kids get to experience these days.
As city planner Jeff Speck notes in his excellent book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, half of American kids walked to school in 1969, but "fewer than 15 percent do now. And sometimes when children do walk to school, their parents are visited by the police," or even charged with neglect.
But walkability isn't just important for kids. Walking is healthier and safer than driving for nearly everyone, and running into your neighbors on foot instead of behind a windshield helps create community and more spontaneous socialization.
What's more, Kevin's elderly neighbor—Old Man Marley—can walk to all these key places, too. That's an incredibly important advantage for seniors who increasingly want to age in place in their homes, affording them more independence and built-in opportunities to stay active.
A study by the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau analyzed how seniors were affected by the neighborhoods they lived in. "The research shows that walkability is extremely important," the report's co-author Mark Mather told CityLab. "As people get older, they may stop working, and the spaces in which they move shrink. Their immediate neighborhood really starts to matter. If they don't walk regularly, it negatively affects their health."
So maybe instead of hoping for a luxury car with a giant bow on it this Christmas, what Americans ought to be wishing for is something far simpler but weirdly harder to find: a well maintained sidewalk that leads somewhere useful.