Secret Weapon For Our Cities: Walking

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New York's High Line Park sets the pace for urban walking amenities. Other cities are trying to duplicate its success.

By Bob Chew

Urban:Fix Editor

The best solutions are often the simplest. When it comes to fixing our traffic- congested cities the simplest and most cost effective tool turns out to be crazy simple – walking.

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Councilman Jose Huizar is leading the "Bring Back Broadway" drive in downtown Los Angeles. The initiative has widen the sidewalk, added planters, and installed cafe tables and umbrellas for a more walkable downtown.

Los Angeles, the poster child for road congestion, is making major moves toward walkability in its old downtown core. Eric Garcetti, the city’s new mayor, has started something he’s calling the “Great Streets” program. It’s starting to make an impact.

A new study from Smart Growth America and George Washington University shows LA ranked 18 out of 30 metro areas for "walk-able urbanism."

Yes, Los Angeles.

This makes LA about even with the walk-able neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City. The report found 54 walk-able neighborhoods in LA in total and predicts the city will become one of the nation’s "major walk-able urban metros” in the near future.

If you haven’t visited downtown Los Angeles aka DTLA) lately you may not recognize it. There are five or more major retail/office/living complexes rising right now, a Whole Foods is arriving, and major shopping additions. Today, some 40,000 people are living downtown.

Along old Broadway, in the historic core, there is “Bring Back Broadway” project that has expanded sidewalks, thinned four car lanes down to two, placed café tables in the street, and put up car blocking planters.

The result is a resurgence of retailing, including the Ace Hotel, Urban Outfitters, Umami Burger, the Los Angeles Brewing Company and upscale Swedish retailer Acne. But the main fix is all about walking. DTLA’s once desolate streets are now alive with thousand of people strolling, shopping, eating, and living.

Renewed Interest in Walking

America’s renewed interest in walk-able city planning was kick started elsewhere after the phenomenal success of New York’s High Line Park project. But it’s not just New York. It seems every city is taking a page from the High Line playbook. And it’s working.

Jeff Speck, an expert on new urbanism, and coauthor of Suburban Nation, believes improving walkability in our cities will improve urban economies, public health, and a city’s sustainability.

His urban fix solutions range from planting trees and narrowing roads to investing in street smart public transit systems and designing visually interesting buildings. Speck’s newest book, Walkable City, details how walking is in fact the secret to success.

One secret to this secret is taking a different view of city planning, as a whole.

City planners love crunching urban data points. They like growth too, one to two percentage points per year. It sounds reasonable on the surface.

“It’s bullshit,” says Speck.

Our downtowns and Main Streets, he points out rightly, have in fact shrunk. This is great news for walking. We can now shrink traffic lanes to “right size” our downtowns. More people can walk, enjoy, shop, read, eat, and see the beautiful old buildings.

If you don’t believe it, go to Europe and see the wonderful squares, public areas, and sidewalk cafes that create life there. The only losers in this scenario are those speeding through town to get home to the burbs and the traffic engineers, who make their living building roads.

No Mystery

It’s no mystery a thriving downtown is a combination of ingredients like street level engagement, big-windowed stores, cool design, hip businesses, public attractions, destination restaurants, live-work housing, and, of course, an alive atmosphere at street level. A downtown of this type not only carries a city’s economy, it can create an old city’s new identity.

Integrating walkability into cities is arguably one of the most important ideas ever, but it’s so easy to miss.

San Diego is at the forefront of the walkability movement. San Francisco is too. And Portland. And, Boston. And New York, and so forth. Bikes are a natural extension of walking. Bike lanes reduce auto speeds and make pedestrians and cyclists feel safer, and adds a buffer between the roadway traffic and walkers on the sidewalk. New York has invested heavily into its CitiBike program and it’s proud to also have its High Line Park, a true phenom in the business of urban parks.

The High Line a “linear park” built on a 1.45-mile section of disused New York Central Railroad. It’s an aerial greenway, an urban rails-to-trails park that was inspired by the three-mile Promenade Plantée, a similar project in Paris completed in the early 1990’s. The High Line, now a “must walk” when in New York, and runs below 14th Street in the Meatpacking District and through Chelsea.

More High Lines

The High Line has encouraged other cities to renovate their railroad infrastructure into parkland, including Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis. In Chicago, the Bloomingdale Trail once completed will be a 2.7 miles long linear park on former railroad infrastructure that will run through several west side neighborhoods, including Logan Park.

It costs substantially less to redevelop an abandoned urban rail line into a linear park than to demolish it. Plus you get to walk and see your community from a new perspective. And, one thing leads naturally to another when walking.

The High Line’s popularity has spawned several museum proposals along its path. The Dia Art Foundation considered but rejected a proposal to build a museum at the Gansevoort Street terminus. The Whitney Museum is currently constructing a new home for its collection of American art. The building was designed by Renzo Piano and will open in 2015.

In Cleveland, walking has been key to one of the great downtown transformations of any rust belt city.

Just walking around the old Terminal Tower complex (now an upscale casino, hotel, shopping complex) and head east, toward East Fourth Street. You’d think you were in New York. The street scene is hip, restaurants like Lola and Zack Bruell’s Chinato are packed. With LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers, and let’s not forget the Republican National Convention coming in 2016, things are popping at street level.

Talk a walk further east down to Playhouse Square, too, and along the way you’ll see new construction in old shells of grand old banks and stone office buildings. These are lofts and apartments and condos that are filling faster then they can rebuild them.

Each summer, the city holds its annual "Walk and Dine in the Gateway District."

It’s a chance to get an inside glimpse of some of downtown's new architectural gems. Several downtown restaurants offer tastings and the tour this year showed off the Metropolitan at The 9, a splashy new hotel located at the intersection of East Ninth Street. There’s also the new apartment complex the Residences at 1717, luxury apartments at 1717 East Ninth St. Then, there’s The Ivory on Euclid, known as the former Truman Building at 1020-1030 Euclid Avenue, which is being converted to retail and residential space.

The point is, it’s all walk-able. And that’s what is creating growth in the heart of Cleveland, and elsewhere, like Phoenix, where leaders want more walk-able streets, too.

But like most cities grappling with options on how to make walking come to life they have to consider the desert heat. For example, should they forgo bicycle lanes for shade trees?

City officials are focusing the walking plans on Adams Street (between Central Avenue and Second Street) and First Street between Washington and Monroe, both in the heart of downtown.

One of the goals is to connect businesses, light rail, entertainment and hotels in this downtown core. Some leaders are also looking for a pedestrian mall on First Street, but there are detractors to this older concept.

Some research shows that when pedestrian malls are put in place businesses dry up, according to a local group, Thunderdome Neighborhood Association for Non-Auto Mobility, a group working to make Phoenix more walking and biking friendly. The city has to get more creative, they claim.

They say the key to making downtown Phoenix more economically vital is -- you guessed it -- walking.

Building more bicycle lanes, safer sidewalks and parallel parking will attract people who travel mainly on public transportation, bicycle and foot, and that will make downtown naturally more energized. And that’s no secret.

Bob Chew is a writer, columnist, and author on real estate and marketing issues. He is the founder of Urban:Fix and Pacific Falls International.

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