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Sidewalks Are Making A Comeback In The Suburbs

Written by Al Heavens on Wednesday, 19 November 2003 6:00 pm
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The people who come up with new-home communities seems to be shifting back to the older, pedestrian-friendly development model.

According to a recent publication by the Urban Land Institute, The New Shape of Suburbia, factors behind the change include a shift in lifestyles and priorities, such as a rise in the number of people working at home and in the number seeking shorter commutes and fewer errand trips.

Such demographic and lifestyle changes have resulted in people placing less value on developments packed with amenities and more value on developments that offer a sense of connection, diversity and pedestrian access, according to the authors of the book.

"For developers, the task is to foster a community for people who have no time to do it themselves," the book says.

Although there are a number of communities nationwide that cluster housing, recreational amenities, shopping, and, in some cases, office space, few of these developments are well-connected to other neighborhoods and do little to curb driving within the surrounding community.

A big challenge for the walkable communities movement is figuring out how to connect with the rest of the community. One way, of course, is public transportation, manifested in the light-rail systems in major cities such as Dallas and San Diego that travel in corridors that parallel, but rarely intersect, busy streets.

The other option is the sidewalk, especially those that can double as parks or nature trails.

Otay Ranch in Chula Vista, Calif., has created sidewalk access with a difference. "Promenade streets" are 5 1/2-foot-wide circulation sidewalks that tie into the village core. "Village pathways" are 10-foot-wide paths paved with concrete that tie village center to village center.

Regular sidewalks are the standard 4 1/2 feet wide, but the developers now realize that they should have been wider -- 5 feet. A few inches do make a difference, since two people should be able to walk down a sidewalk side-by-side and feel physically comfortable doing so.

Otay came up with the paseo, which is supposed to be the route from the farthest reaches of each development to the village core. The paseos are 60-foot-wide, heavily landscaped pedestrian pathways that offer additional “passive" parks to the residents.

These paseos gather foot traffic from adjacent cul-de-sacs that have "pop-through pathways."

The true street grid system tends to be straight, and straight streets means that cars can travel faster. Otay wanted to slow traffic, so it created a pedestrian grid system. Cul-de-sacs were created for cars, but pedestrians were allowed to go through the end of the cul-de-sac to the paseo to reach the same destination."

By creating the pedestrian grid -- which also includes regional trails and pedestrian bridges on the village pathways that enable pedestrians to walk everywhere without having to cross streets at grade -- car use is subtly discouraged.

In return, neighborhoods have become friendlier.

Mark Brodeur of RRM Design Group's San Juan Capistrano, Calif., office has 26 years of urban-planning experience. He said a lot of communities have been reworking sidewalks to refurbish their downtowns. He recommends that these pathways be kept basic.

"You don't want pedestrians to look at their feet, and you don't want to build sidewalks of cobblestones where they might trip and fall," he said. "You want [people] to keep their eyes on the storefronts.

"You can certainly add some interest when you build the sidewalks, and not being extravagant helps a community save money on improvements that it can devote to other things," such as promotion and marketing, Brodeur said.

There are three parts to a sidewalk, he said.

The utility zone is closest to the curb, and it takes up 4 feet of a typical business district sidewalk, which can be eight to 10 feet wide -- the wider the better.

The walking zone abuts the utility zone and should have enough clear space so that two people walking toward each other can pass easily.

Abutting or even part of the walking zone is the browsing zone, which Brodeur calls the "richest" part of the sidewalk for retailers, because that's where pedestrians can walk and look in the windows and at the signs.

"Adding benches or other kinds of seating in the browsing zone makes the pedestrians feel at home," he said.

Should cars be banned from downtown streets?

"We are all lazy, so we need cars and on-street parking," Brodeur said. "People still like to shop where they park, and every parking space in front of a store increases sales by $10,000 a year."

What about slowing auto traffic?

"The ideal speed limit is 22 m.p.h.," he said. "That gives the driver the chance to perceive what's going on along the street."

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