Teenage Ian thought he knew the trappings of his future ideal life.
“I’ll have a huge house, an awesome car, a beautiful wife, and a job that pays for all of it and then some. Paychecks with zeroes for days!”
I’m shocked at how far my dreams have shifted in the last 10 years. My dream today does not include a mansion. Rather, I just hope to live in a small home that doesn’t feel cramped. (And not too big to make cleaning a burden). I do not enjoy driving much and will likely shell out for used sedans if I buy any car at all. And I want to find a job that, challenges and fulfills me on a regular basis. The salary is secondary. A beautiful (and smart and funny and tall) wife still sounds wonderful, though.
My dream slowly migrated in my early 20’s as I accompanied my grandmother on trips to San Francisco. In the downtown area, the transit system left me in awe. Electric busses cruised beneath power wires. Vintage streetcars clanged and rumbled down Market Street and The Embarcadero. Subway trains dirty and reeking of piss roared through urban blood vessels. Stations swarmed with street musicians and beggars. The city pulsed and circulated in rhythm.
As my dreams of decadence decline into minimalist goals, I realize what I seek is not the largest house I can afford, but the most walkable neighborhood I can afford.
What is walkability? City planners across the U.S. throw this buzzword around more often than ever. It is the antithesis of the suburban sprawl that epitomized the mid-20th-century American city. Walkability measures the accessibility of one’s neighborhood if one does not have an automobile. It factors in mixed-use zoning (are houses, shops, and businesses close together or far apart?), proximity to transit stops (as well as the effectiveness of the transit system), sidewalks and bike infrastructure, as well the goods and services one can access within a 1-mile radius of one’s dwelling.
My hometown, Fair Oaks, California, does not feel very walkable. While there are some grocery stores and restaurants on the fringes of my home’s one-mile radius, walking around my neighborhood can be quite boring. When I leave my house to take a walk, I want to see more variety aside from “little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same.”
When I consider why I love my life in Korea, I instinctively point to strong financial security, job satisfaction, the joy of interacting with students, and ample vacation time. But one factor that I do not discuss too much, one factor that affects my life here every day, is Namak’s walkability. This factor might be the most important, underappreciated and overlooked element of Korean life.
While my Fair Oaks neighborhood has one (maybe two) grocery stores within my home’s one-mile radius, I can think of at least five sources of fresh food around my apartment. Rather than one or two restaurants, I have countless eateries enveloping my neighborhood. I can easily access a bank, my cell phone carrier, countless cafés, and my place of work by walking 10 minutes or less. If I get on my bike, that accessibility radius widens to include a big box store (Lotte Mart), parks, gyms, and the post office.
In addition to bountiful local access to businesses and public services, Namak also provides me with ample access to transit around Mokpo and around Korea. I can ride a local bus into downtown Mokpo in 20 minutes. These buses run every 15-30 minutes. I can also reach the intercity bus terminal in 25 minutes, and the train station in 45-50 minutes. While I would no doubt save some time by driving, the transit time is not completely oppressive. From Mokpo (the Southwest corner of Korea), I can make it to Seoul by bus or train in 4-5 hours. While this extends beyond the scope of a “walkable city”, it speaks to Korea’s impressive transportation infrastructure.
My only complaint when it comes to inter-city transit is the direction of most transit arteries. Many highways, bus routes, and train tracks seem to prefer a north-south orientation. So while it may take me 3-4 hours by bus or train to reach Seoul (traveling north), it can take 5 or more hours to get to Busan (traveling east). Otherwise, I am blown away by the ease of transportation.
The benefits of living in a walkable city compound over time. When I left home back in 2017, by iPhone’s step counter averaged around 7,000 steps per day. In my previous life, I spent hours every week driving between substitute teaching positions and rented office spaces to work for a private tutoring company. Since moving to Korea, I average 12,000 steps per day. On weekends or day trips I can tally 20,000 steps or more. While I understand that “steps” is a minuscule measurement in terms of overall physical activity, 5,000 steps amount to an extra 3.1 kilometers of walking per day. For a 200-pound man, that burns about 210 extra calories per day, As a result, I’ve found it much easier to maintain my weight without killing myself in the gym. This naturalistic exercise is nearly effortless.
I also find it much easier to maintain a robust social life in a walkable community. Manageable local bus rides allow me to meet with friends on a regular basis without guzzling gas. These meetings can be spur-of-the-moment with no burden whatsoever. The same cannot be said about friends in L.A. or Houston where intracity meetups can entail a full hour of driving one way. In that case, gatherings almost have to be pre-arranged and inevitably become fewer and far between. Increases in physical distance exponentially reduce social contact.
When I project into the future – to the end of my life in Korea, I will dearly miss Namak and Mokpo’s walkability. The proximity of food, businesses, cafés, and friends simplifies life compared to one in suburban America.
Fortunately, the U.S. has plenty of walkable communities that I may someday consider. While obvious choices (big cities like New York or San Francisco) may prove prohibitively expensive, many college towns serve as affordable and walkable communities as well. The challenge of moving students around a community when many do not have cars presents similar issues to the lives of Korean citizens. While car ownership here is climbing, it pales next to the “Autopia” that is the United States.
Most importantly, when I come home from Korea, I will do so with a completely revised plan of how to live a happy life – minimize driving time, live in a walkable community, and find an engaging, fulfilling job that can pay the bills. I’ll leave the mansion and sports car to satisfy someone else’s dream.