Observations to Making a City Walkable

When making the choice to move Gangplank to downtown Chandler one of the goals was to be in an area that was walkable.  The last four months has allowed me a lot of time to observe what is important in making a place walkable.  The improvements for widening Arizona Avenue for pedestrians (how rare for Arizona) is almost complete and here are some reflective thoughts.

Sidewalk width is very important.
Drivers of vehicles like wide lanes and lots of them to avoid congestion and speed their commute.  Pedestrians and cyclists are no different.  Nothing is worse than getting stuck behind a slow walker and having no way to easily pass them.  Go wide or go home.

Trees are critical.
Not only do they provide shade which is necessary when it is a brutal 100 plus degrees out, but they provide the aesthetic necessary to allow people to lengthen their horizon of vision.  This gives perspective and raises awareness for pedestrians of their overall environment.

Empty lots are bad.
People don’t like to walk/cycle past empty lots.  They will walk for half a mile and think its a short walk if there are no “gaps” in the property line.  Insert a single empty lot and people will complain about walking a single city block.

Tall buildings insulate.
The bigger the buildings the more protection they provide from the elements, sun, wind, etc.

Raised crosswalks change culture.
This was my biggest take realization.  Just by having a raised brick crosswalk I have seen the same mid street crossing completely transformed.  It is now common that cars will stop at the crosswalk when someone is just simply standing waiting to cross the street. Adding strong visible cues to motorists is important!

Places to congregate accelerate community.
Something as simple as a benches, tables and chairs or inlets encourage people to hang out and have conversations.  This encourages other people to do the same.  It brings activity and life to pathways and starts dialog among those in travel within the place.  It acts as an ignition spark for building community.

In a nutshell, we underestimate how much of a mental shift being walkable really is.  Lots of little things especially visual cues are necessary to help ease into a culture of wanting to walk or cycle from place to place.  The reward is being connected to your place and being energized.

I challenge you to start walking or biking to anything that is within 1/2 mile of where you live or work.  When you do so, put yourself in observation mode.  Think about every little thing that you like and dislike when doing the challenge.  These are the little things that you need to work with your city/neighbors on to change the culture.

Don’t Blame the Cars, Blame the Urban Planners

People complain about parking a lot.  The suburbanite complains that there is not enough parking when there is not an open parking space within 10 feet of the strip mall merchant they want to do business with.  The urban champion rants that motor vehicles are the spawn of Satan and that asphalt gardens littering metro Phoenix only encourage the car obsession.  Both groups can raise a fair amount of sympathy in their own camp.

However, it is not the cars or the parking lots that are the real problem.  The real problem is that city planners in the SouthWest have forgotten how to build community.  They have lost the art of creating city/neighborhood cores that provide multi-stop destinations to those that visit or live in them.  Drive by any large mall and you will find people not complaining about parking.  Why?  Because they stay there for 2 to 6 hours.  Walking for 5 minutes when you stay for that long is no big deal.  It’s time we recreate city/neighborhood cores that allow for someone to park and spend a reasonable amount of time exploring, shopping, playing and dining.

It’s time we provided enough value that parking and having to walk a few blocks is not an issue.  If we start there it will only be a matter of time before people choose to regularly inhabit these cores.  When that happens dependence on the car will wane.  We must stop fighting the symptom (car dependence) and start attacking the cause (poor urban planning).  We must embrace the city we are in if we wish to obtain the city we want to become.  We live in a car dominated culture, asking people to people to quit the car cold turkey is unrealistic.  Giving them options to use the car less is reasonable.

How can you affect planning in your city to reduce car dominance and restore community?