“..the comfortable walk has to do with the fact that all animals seek, simultaneously, prospect and refuge. We want to be able to see our predators, but we also want to feel that our flanks are covered. And so we’re drawn to places that have good edges, and if you don’t supply the edges, people won’t want to be there.”
~ Jeff Speck
On our Friday morning walk into town for breakfast at the local diner, we noticed that spring was busting out. The snowdrops that bloomed earlier were all gone, but the daffodils and tulips were showing bright and gay. On the corner, the forsythia and quince made quite a show entangling and contrasting their bright red and yellow flowers.
It’s easy to walk in my neighborhood. We have sidewalks and paved trails through town and quite a few parks along the creek and next to the business district. The college at the top of the hill, Colorado School of Mines, is rife with pathways, both on campus and on surrounding lands. The walkability and bike-ability of our town is a strong community attribute.
What is walkability?
Town planner and architect, Jeff Speck, says, “It means you need to offer four things simultaneously: there needs to be a proper reason to walk, the walk has to be safe and feel safe, the walk has to be comfortable and the walk has to be interesting.”
My small town, has an old-fashioned Main Street downtown that has survived many waves of “improvement’. At some point in the 1960’s or ’70’s, the city fathers (and maybe a mother or two) realized that the old two- and three-story brick facades were attractive and that the western-style awnings over the sidewalks in front of the stores were not only functional, but had character. Newer buildings and renovations protected the character of the old days (for the most part).
Originally, a hundred years ago, the retail and commercial store fronts had offices or residences on the upper floors, and these mixed uses have been preserved and encouraged. Interestingly, this practice from the old days has currently been recast in North America as “New Urbanism” and touted by urban planners as a cure for sprawl. When new in-fill buildings have gone into our downtown the New Urbanism design has been maintained, and vacant or under-used lots have been developed with four-story buildings of similarly mixed uses. This added a significant amount of residential space, and that has driven a need for residential-related services. More restaurants and bars have been added, as well as other retail use. Underground and city-owned parking structures have accommodated residential needs and increased traffic. Our downtown really jumps on weekends.
So, our walk into town for a meal, diversion or some light shopping offers us a proper reason to walk. In addition, walking through our neighborhood is a chance to visit with various neighbors. There are plenty whose names I can’t recall, but have seen often on our walks, shopping, or at the annual historic district block party. (I do, invariably seem to remember the dogs’ names, though.)
Where we used to have a large number of short-term renters and motorcycle groups in town, we now have more families and college students. The downtown bars have gradually improved and cleaned up their acts. (Eliminating smoking helped a lot!) There’s only one remaining main street bar catering to the 8am beer-and-a-shot crowd, and they’re not a nuisance, but kind of an historic anachronism. The motorcycle groups come in now on expensive BMWs, have expensive gear and outfits and their “old ladies” are actually old ladies. The biggest crime these days is not leaving a large enough tip for the waitress.
The nine square blocks of my neighborhood feature large, old trees and sidewalks, and sport “tree lawns” separating the sidewalk from the street. Summer walks are shaded and the city-sponsored tree maintenance program keeps the trees healthy and replaces them when one comes down. People plant flower beds and shrubs that add color to the place and, with the trees, attract birds and squirrels — and often bigger critters. Most of our residential areas have a comfortable relationship between the buildings and the street, and the downtown has appropriate setbacks and height limitations to allow for the proper scale. You don’t feel crowded or loomed over, and traffic doesn’t intrude on your space as you walk.
My neighborhood is a historic district — most of the houses are over a hundred years old. Reasonable care and older vegetation provide a lot of character (not to mention the resident ‘characters’) and make the neighborhood interesting. Downtown remains imbued with its historic character and other parts of town have been developed in pleasant ways. We host two major manufacturing facilities in town, but they have managed to be non-intrusive and add to the town’s character. The town developed areas along the creek as open, walkable/bikable spaces and parks, and developed the adjacent town service areas to be compatible.
It’s a nice place. But it didn’t just happen, it evolved gradually as people became invested in making it pleasant and keeping the things that were interesting and made it work. As a community, we’ve come together, worked through conflicts (not always successfully), and kept at it.
Maybe our town is the right size to allow people to be actively engaged and big enough to have resources to make things happen. We seem to have done a pretty good job of meeting the walkability criteria, and there are a lot more interesting attractions, too.
We’re proud of our town. Come take a walk sometime. Golden, Colorado, 80401.
4 ways to make a city more walkable, Jeff Speck, TEDTalks, Feb 2017