Friday, June 26, 2015

Gil Penalosa inspires a discussion about communities that meet the needs of everyone from age 8 to age 80.

Making communities safe and welcoming to all people regardless of age, income, race or ethnicity was the topic of a panel I moderated at the ICSC Midwest Urban Forum in Detroit this past week. One panelist came from slightly further afield. Urban planner Gil PeƱalosa, former Parks Commissioner for the City of Bogota, Colombia (where his brother Enrique served as Bogota's Mayor) offered a compelling vision and rationale for communities to meet the needs of people from the ages of 8 to 80 - which is why he founded a non-profit based out of Toronto called 8-80 Cities.
Gil Penalosa, former City of Bogota Parks Commissioner speaking at the IDA Midwest Urban Forum in Downtown Detroit. If you are wondering about the empty chairs in the started raining and we improved beautifully by bringing everybody onto the stage with us! 
He succeeded in painting one of the more compelling visions of a walkable downtown that I've heard in a long time. He started by asking the audience to imagine an 8-year old child that they love. Then he asked them to imagine an 80-year old senior that they love. He finished by asking "would you feel comfortable with that person walking or crossing the street in your neighborhood? Would you send them along to the nearest store to grab a pint of milk and eggs?" By putting walkability and safety in these very personal and blunt terms, he said more in just a few sentences than most people can say with charts and graphs in a half hour. 

This challenge, making communities realize the importance of connectivity, walk-ability and bike-ability to local commercial districts, has been coming up for us more and more here at LOA, particularly when we deal with neighborhood commercial districts that are struggling to remain relevant as shopping destinations. When you talk to business and property owners in many of these districts - our most recent project in a small NJ town comes to mind - they complain about lack of parking. Yet in this case, the district is surrounded by fairly well off walkable neighborhoods. Unfortunately, over time the safe walkable/bikable connections between the commercial district and the neighborhood they serve have been eviscerated. Roads widened and sidewalks narrowed to accommodate vehicles moving at faster and faster speeds. So the impact of road expansion is two fold. Not only are cars encouraged to speed, but when people consider going to their local commercial district, they hop in their cars. And once they are in their cars, a few extra minutes takes them someplace with more parking, more retail offerings and more selection. In this environment, traditional commercial corridors struggle to compete. 

So what are the elements of a successful walkable, bikeable commercial district? Here are a few:
  • Bike parking. Adequate,convenient places to safely park your bike. 
  • DO: Consider setting aside adequate parking for bikes.
    One parking space can fit up to 12 bikes.
  • Bike lanes. This is not just about bike lanes on the commercial street, it is also about outfitting connecting streets with bike lanes that offer safe and convenient access to the district from nearby neighborhoods. 
DO: Do your best to create safe, dedicated bike lanes.
In Long Island City, Queens the dedicated two-way bike paths
offer cyclists safety at a very busy intersection. 
  • Sidewalks wide enough, safe enough, and comfortable enough for an 8 year old, or an 80 year old, to walk on.
DO: Even streets without trees can be comfortable for pedestrians.
In Great Barrington, MA awning provide much welcome shade during hot days. 
  • Slow(er) moving vehicles. Consider traffic calming measures that prioritize pedestrians at crossings. 
    DO: Bump-outs are a way to give your road a diet...
    and narrow streets are a great way to slow down cars. 
  • Pedestrian lighting. The traditional cobra head light does a great job of lighting streets at night, but what about sidewalks? Pedestrian lighting is scaled to offer light for those who use sidewalks. 
    DO: Pedestrian lighting is for pedestrians. Cobra heads are for cars. 
  • Benches. Offer a reprieve for seniors and when placed in front of stores, are more likely to be monitored. 
    DO: Find out if your businesses can set out benches in front of their stores.
    If the regulatory powers that be allow it, it can be a great way to offer kids and elderly much needed reprieve between visits to stores. 

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