Note from PCJ Editor Wayne Senville:
Cities and towns are increasingly recognizing that walkability plays a key role in achieving broader economic and social goals, such as revitalizing urban centers, creating a sense of place in suburbs, and reclaiming the attractiveness of small towns. In our Winter issue, Planning Commissioners Journal columnist Hannah Twaddell reports on the growing interest in walkable communities.
Here’s part of a conversation Betsey Krumholz, our general manager (who has served in Burlington, Vermont, on both the planning commission and school board), had with Hannah Twaddell about her article.
The Link Between Walkability and Economic Vitality
Betsey Krumholz: One of the most interesting aspects of your article is the connection you draw between walkability and economic vitality. For example, in your article you mention Binghamton, New York, where you worked as a consultant, as a city where this link led to a different way of looking at development.
Hannah Twaddell: The Binghamton region, like many others whose economy was based on manufacturing, had fallen on hard times. As part of the effort to shift from traditional industries to smaller high tech and R&D companies, the city was looking to attract the “creative class” of young urban professionals, as well as encouraging the local university students to stay in the region.
The region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization wanted to focus its resources on attracting those much-needed urban businesses and residents. A second reason was to support the significant aging population – and make the area safer, more accessible, and more attractive to the long-time residents.
Supported by the MPO, our firm undertook a formal visioning process for the entire region. Through community meetings and workshops, people were encouraged to think about the qualities they wanted to encourage in their neighborhoods and towns, and how they wanted the region to grow.
Betsey Krumholz: How did work on a transportation plan tie in to economic development issues?
Hannah Twaddell: Like most communities, Binghamton had an economic development plan. They had identified special assets, market niches, resources, and so on — but there was not much in the way of maps and geographic renderings to plan where this new activity should go.
Once we sat down and looked at options for attracting these new uses to various places, we discovered that a good number of them would best fit in core urban areas, rather than in industrial cul-de-sacs or suburban shopping centers. The fact that these areas offered rich pedestrian networks gave them a huge advantage when it came time to identify the most cost-effective, attractive places to locate new jobs and housing.
Many older cities, like Binghamton, are very walkable, but need new activity to draw people back onto the streets. By contrast, many newer cities and thriving suburbs have plenty of activity but suffer from terrible traffic congestion and a lack of personality because they are designed for cars rather than for people. Both of these situations provide opportunities to improve economic vitality by making pedestrian-oriented investments. It’s just a lot cheaper and easier to focus on improving the vitality of existing urban areas than on building entirely new infrastructure and redesigning streets and buildings to make walking and transit truly viable travel options.
Betsey Krumholz: So how did you go about this in Binghamton?
Hannah Twaddell: We established a set of building blocks by looking at different types of community development patterns found throughout the region, and talking with people about how they would prefer to see these areas grow. Usually people wanted more pedestrian-friendly places, better connections to the area’s beautiful riverfronts, and more options for people to drive short distances, walk or use transit for their daily trips. We drew some “enhanced” patterns that matched these ideas to real places, and then worked with folks to evaluate different regionwide combinations of patterns.
Through this process, it became clear that the region would benefit most from investing transportation dollars primarily on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements in the central cities, rather than on extending freeways out to the suburban areas, a big departure from the current thinking. This fundamental policy shift led the way to a significant update of the regional transportation plan.
Walking to School
Betsey Krumholz: I want to shift to something else you mention in your article, and that’s the frustration of parents who drive their children everywhere. Driving kids to sports practice so they can exercise has always struck me as funny — but today it’s serious business. You’ve also previously written in the PCJ about Safe Routes to School programs — one great way to get kids out of the car and parents off the roads — what else can we do?
Hannah Twaddell: In the planning realm there is a growing interest in school design and location. Older neighborhoods are trying to reuse or build neighborhood schools, and newer developments are looking to locate schools and parks closer to the homes so kids can walk or bike.
One of the biggest barriers many communities face to making this happen is their adopted standards for school size. The amount of acreage typically required for playing fields and parking, not to mention buildings, can make it nearly impossible to site a school in a dense, walkable place. The good news is that most of these requirements are based on national guidelines that have recently been updated to provide for more pedestrian-friendly schools. [For more on this, see Tim Torma’s PCJ article, “Back to School for Planners” and Edward McMahon’s “School Sprawl.”]
Planners need to educate themselves and their school departments about the new standards and examine their own local codes and land use practices to make sure they are in fact encouraging community-centered schools. In addition to the transportation and quality of life benefits that can be gained by more efficient school location and design, towns may well save money by using existing infrastructure rather than building more, such as sharing town parks for school athletic fields.
In addition, planners can look at greenways, sidewalks and bike routes connecting schools, parks, libraries, neighborhoods, and other places kids could potentially go by themselves if they had a safe travel network. We can work with developers to co-locate schools with new housing, and create street connectivity and sidewalk requirements to connect the dots. We can use existing funding devices, like impact fees, to leverage private sector involvement.
The pattern of low-density, dispersed, automobile-oriented development has been gaining momentum across the whole country for more than half a century now. We may not be able to stop this trend and turn the ship around overnight, but we can start improving the walkability of the development we have, and looking more thoughtfully at where we encourage new growth and locate our public facilities.
Ensuring a Healthy Environment for Children
Betsey Krumholz: Beyond schools is there anything else we should be looking at?
Hannah Twaddell: In the public health arena, there is a growing interest in getting kids moving in order to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity. Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have made it clear that the double whammy of high-fat, high-sugar diets and sedentary lifestyles is crippling our nation’s children. And the problem is embedded so deeply into our culture that it’s really hard to combat.
We will have to tackle the problem from all these angles and more in order to create healthy environments for our children. We got ourselves into this mess in part by separating land uses to the point where residential neighborhoods can’t incorporate even small-scale commercial and civic activities that people could walk to, like dance studios, doctor’s offices, corner groceries, or public swimming pools. We can start digging ourselves out of trouble by making sure our codes allow for these types of mixed uses and that our requirements for street connectivity and sidewalks make it easy for people, especially children, to access them from home.
“Safety” is also cited as a prime reason parents drive kids everywhere. There are two big factors at play here, both of which can be addressed by encouraging walkability. One is the legitimate fear of high-speed traffic. Slowing down traffic, especially at intersections, is a critical requirement if we hope to get any people out of their cars, especially children.
The second fear is somewhat less rational, but even more powerful — that our children are certain to be kidnapped, attacked, or otherwise harmed if we let our eyes off them for even a second. Somehow, we’ve lost our faith in “the village” of other people whose help we really do need to raise our children. Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the village itself. Providing well-designed public spaces and pedestrian-friendly streets could go a long way toward restoring our villages, literally and figuratively.