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Walkable communities can help old and young alike thrive

Posted: September 30, 2014 11:25 a.m.
Updated: September 30, 2014 11:20 a.m.
Tom Smart/Deseret News

Justin Ricci rides his skateboard through his neighborhood at 2100 South and 1100 East in Sugarhouse -- a walking community -- where retail, professional and residential locations are all together, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

When Dan Biederman was 9, his uncle and his dad took their sons for a walk through Manhattan. While the men talked business, the youngsters stared in awe at bustling scenes unlike those of the suburban communities where they lived.

They peered into storefronts and watched diners along Madison Avenue, then craned their necks on Fifth Avenue to find the top of the Empire State Building. The two and a half-hour sensory excitement was an adventure Biederman remembers vividly decades later.

It is perhaps not just chance that Biederman, a nationally known streetscape and community designer, helps cities revitalize public spaces to encourage people to get out of their cars and walk or bike, use public transportation and engage with both people and places in ways that improve well-being.

And residents will likely support those changes. TransitCenter, a philanthropy that focuses on promoting mass transit, released a survey last week that found great and unmet demand for neighborhoods that include housing, retail and commercial space, mixed together. While 58 percent consider that mix an ideal neighborhood, only 39 percent of the nationally representative sample said they live in such a neighborhood.

The study was one of several in recent weeks that focus on the holy grail of community design: What people want, how a city’s design benefits families and communities and what it would take to make change happen.

Community planners find enthusiasm for more user-friendly neighborhoods, but also barriers that range from the cost of redesign to regulatory rules and the understandable desire of builders, businesses and governments to get the community that would most benefit each of them -- not always the same thing.

Bustling, bite-size blocks

Researchers have examined what makes a walkable community. Wesley Marshall, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Denver, was interested in a different question. Could one measure the benefits of a walkable, bike-friendly community in terms of better health?

Marshall and co-author Norman Garrick, associate professor of engineering at the University of Connecticut, found older, more compact cities are better for walking and riding bikes, and that improves health.

When those researchers discuss communities, they describe how wide the roads are and how far one must travel from one intersection to the next. They might give bonus points for bike lanes and features like city parks that make people want to go outside and be active.

The researchers linked compact, walkable city design with better health for the people who live there, compared to those in sprawling towns.

Their study, published in the Journal of Transport and Health, compared 24 midsize California cities, populations between 30,000 and 100,000, concluding it’s not a stretch to think obesity, diabetes, heart disease and asthma may be related in part to urban sprawl, where driving’s the only way to get around efficiently.

Using data from the California Health Interview Survey for odd years between 2003 and 2009, which included as many as 51,000 adults, they found having more intersections, placed closer together, in walkable communities was “significantly linked” to less obesity at the neighborhood level. Looking even further, across entire cities, they saw fewer cases of not only obesity, but also high blood pressure and diabetes.

“Overall, the study showed that the healthiest cities had shorter blocks and more intersections,” they noted.

Marshall told the Deseret News that many “well-intentioned” city design decisions that encourage people to use cars and spread out had the unforeseen result of challenging residents to seek out exercise, instead of building it into living environments. People are more active on a routine basis when it’s simply a consequence of how they live in walk-friendly, bike-friendly, out-and-about communities.

Creating such communities changes family life, said David Bragdon, executive director of TransitCenter. It makes all generations healthier, communities become more vibrant -- and as a bonus, it sets parents free from the drudgery of endless chauffeuring, he said in a recent teleconference.

Building it

A new community in the mountainous area of Park City, Utah, is counting on that being the case. But it sees benefits that extend well beyond health.

The Newpark Town Center is one of many attempts going on nationwide to design walk-friendly mixed-use communities. The 800,000-square-foot development includes a hotel, residential space and shopping, according to Tim Anker, local branch broker of Cushman and Wakefield Commerce.

“I think what people are looking for in that community is all those services and amenities they are going to need regularly, all within a walkable reach,” he said. “Library, post office, grocery store, theater, all of your fitness needs -- there’s a county fitness facility located there -- trail connection, transit connections. The thing that the project is least focused on is parking. We are really trying to promote being out and walking.”

Sprawl is still part of that picture in the vast green space that surrounds it. The development butts up against the Swaner nature preserve.

An area’s geography impacts how residents use it. Manhattan benefits from being flat, and it has small blocks. Portland’s another good example, Biederman said. The blocks are extremely small and feature lots of corner retail space. He believes the most interesting cities have smaller blocks and a concentration of residents. “Spread-out cities like Los Angeles and Oklahoma City can be infuriating,” he said. “In Los Angeles, it can take 70 minutes to drive four miles.”

Cities that are otherwise walkable and touch-friendly can be ruined if buildings are dull and retail is absent, Biederman warned.

Some communities are themselves mixed. Salt Lake County, for example, has large blocks and wide roads in some areas, with clearly defined residential and commercial districts. Pockets like the Avenues, downtown and Sugar House are more compact and have placed great emphasis on bikes and transit and walkability, along with scattered retail and offices.

Robert Grow, chairman of Envision Utah, said transit-related polling found many themes: People want time to spend with children, time to go to the mountains. “Time is what matters most to people to do things they want. Cost is also important,” he said.

Pedestrians have three needs, said John Z Wetmore, producer and host of the TV series “Perils for Pedestrians“: They need a way to walk beside the street, a way to cross the street and somewhere to go. If there’s nowhere to go, the others don’t matter much, he said.

Wetmore takes land-use patterns seriously and asks a series of question that communities must answer to gain the rewards of being foot-friendly: “Are there destinations within walking distance? Are there neighborhood schools? Are there local stores? Are there local parks? Could someone carry out most of their daily tasks without driving a car?”

Neighborhoods that can answer yes to those questions are poised to bloom, the experts said.

Generations

Biederman, of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corp. in New York City, saw firsthand the impact of the right community design on the elderly. His sister’s father-in-law moved 25 miles from a suburb into Manhattan after his wife died. “He did nothing but walk the streets, go to lectures and concerts and movies,” said Biederman. “He had no need for a car. He walked, albeit slowly. It kept him alive, I am sure, for many years more than if he stayed living in the suburban home.”

Jen Clark spent her whole life in Boston and said the walkable design of the area has made it possible for her to “age in place,” remaining active as she enters her eighth decade. She walked with her children when she was younger, relying most heavily on her feet and their bikes, whether they were going to school or piano lessons or visiting the aquarium and historic sites. These days, she takes transit to doctor appointments or shopping and whiles away warm Saturday afternoons strolling, enjoying the bustle that surrounds her, she said.

Nationally, there’s a great deal of talk about community design with the aging in mind. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University called housing a “linchpin of well-being.” The report emphasizes “proximity of housing to stores, services and transportation enables older adults (50 and older) to remain active and productive members of their communities, meet their own basic needs and maintain social connections.”

TransitCenter’s “Who’s On Board 2014,” noted generational differences for embracing public transportation vs. car-friendly communities design. Millennials love transit; baby boomers shun it.

“Despite having grown up taking transit and being encouraged to do so, baby boomers have become averse to riding on trains and buses. Meanwhile, millennials, who grew up riding in their parents’ cars, are turning to transit in large numbers,” the report said. It found education doesn’t have a big effect on transit use. What does is travel time, reliability and cost.

Public transit options are important in walkable communities, both because they can enable more walking or bike riding and because they impact how or if one uses a car. While the report focused on public transit, it noted that community choices are inextricably linked.

Obstacles

It’s not always a matter of choice, though. “Many Americans wish they could live in mixed-use communities, but find themselves unable to get out of the bedroom communities of their youth,” the report found.

Communities face barriers. A report created for the city of Edmonton, Canada, in 2010 listed physical barriers like existing streets and sidewalks and designs that tend to do things the way they’ve been done; and social and cultural barriers like being car-centric, which gives being a pedestrian a lower social status.

Physical and environmental factors “can negatively affect a pedestrian’s feeling of comfort, such as weather, temperature, noise, odor and air pollution,” wrote the report’s authors, from Stantec Consulting. They noted accessibility barriers like signage and curb cuts. Perhaps the biggest barrier is financial, the report said.

Anker predicts every generation in Park City’s new development will be well-served. In such a work-live-play community, he said, young or old will find what they need. And while no one’s getting rid of their cars, “they don’t need to use them every time they leave the house.”

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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