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Walkable Communities: The Commercial Environment

Written by David Kopec on Tuesday, 23 December 2003 6:00 pm
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Who uses commercial areas the most? Who spends the most money in commercial districts? And, who are we enticing when we promote pedestrian activity in a commercial area? The answer to all of these questions is women.

Women shop the most, women tend to promote outside dining the most, and women tend linger in public spaces the most. Therefore, when we consider the design of a walkable commercial district, we will need to understand what motivates and entices women to walk within that district.

The first concept to be discussed is the commercial constituency. This, city-planning authorities have little control over because individual owners of property have the right to lease their property to whomever they choose. Cities can, however, use zoning measures to preclude certain types of businesses within the district. For those communities that are attempting to rehabilitate their commercial district, the legacy of what used to be can be a lingering reminder of unpleasant times.

Examples might include a preponderance of bargain stores, pawnshops, liquor stores, thrift shops, check-cashing institutions, etc. Each of these businesses in their singularity have little impact and can often fulfill a need. The problem, however, comes with the accumulation of these sorts of businesses. When the commercial district has one of these types of businesses on each block, the general perception tends to believe that the community has stability issues and can lead to fears.

Another aspect about the commercial constituency is the hours of operation. Most commercial establishments in the United States tend to stay open until 9pm. In commercial districts you would want to attract businesses that would be willing to host similar hours so that the streets remain busy. Additionally, it is the evening hours when most derelict activities begin. Hence, those commercial areas that lock up at 5pm tend to have greater incidences of vandalism, graffiti, and homeless patronage, but if businesses are open later, there will be more eyes on the street to monitor activities.

Another concept for consideration within the commercial district is the types of businesses. Mega shopping centers in a commercial district of a community will hurt all of the other businesses around. These huge stores with their reduced prices will pull the patronage from the smaller stores, which can't afford such discounts, and ultimately put them out of business. Eventually the community would have only the one mega store in the commercial district and no one needs to walk to a single store. Along the same lines, communities should research and promote a unique theme to their community. This identification will not only draw people, but also inspire leisurely walks through the area. Examples might include "Restaurant Row", Arts Community", "and/or Theater District." Each of these labels of association tells a little about the community and inspires exploration of the unique offerings in such a place.

The next area to be discussed is the planning, development, and maintenance of infrastructure such as sidewalks. First, when people walk they tend to do so with a partner. Therefore, the sidewalks should be wide enough to allow two sets of couples to pass unencumbered. Another feature involving sidewalks is the maintenance. Some communities have sidewalks that are both narrow and in need of repair. People who have tripped on a crack in a sidewalk are not likely to view that area positively in the future not only because of the basic need for self preservation, but also because of the damage a trip hazard can cause to one's clothing.

I can remember surveying a community with a colleague who tripped on one such hazard. The trip didn't cause any physical harm to him but did put a hole in the knee of a new suit. Until this incident this colleague thought I was being an extremist by saying that the impact of the environment on a person or their property will affect how that person perceives the environment. Once he received the bill for the damage done to his paints he admitted that he now thought of that community unfavorably and was more resistant to visit it. He further remarked that his enjoyment of that community has been reduced because he is more concerned about watching his step as opposed to viewing the amenities.

I also know of several women who will avoid certain areas because of the cracks in the sidewalks. Their issue is that their heels gets caught in the cracks and either damages the heel or causes them to trip. One woman told me, "Shoes are too expensive to be ruined by shopping in community XYZ." In addition to sidewalk maintenance, sidewalk entrances and exits should be ramped not only for disability access but also to reduce trips. I know of one older woman who tripped entering a sidewalk from a crosswalk because she didn't lift her foot high enough. As a result of the fall she shattered her wrist. Consequently, she doesn't walk nearly as much as she used to because she is afraid of injuring herself.

A third concept to be discussed in this article has to do with convenience. There is nothing more annoying to a pedestrian than to be unable to find a rubbish bin when they have to pick up the excrements of their pets, throw away their coffee cups, or discard literature handed to them by street vendors. Therefore, rubbish bins should be readily available and emptied routinely as to reduce the possibility of overflow.

Another attribute missing from many communities is that of restrooms. Luckily, many businesses extend their restroom services to the public, but there are many other businesses that restrict restroom service to patrons, and other businesses that do not offer the service at all. I guarantee if you ask those individuals who have small bladders what they would want in a walkable community, they would say restrooms.

While there are many more pedestrian conveniences to be discussed, I am going to end on the convenience of lighting. I think most of us have some level of fear to those things that go bump in the night. But the one thing that most people complain about is the lack of lighting in parking areas. Finding one's key, or keyhole can be quite annoying especially if one is already anxious from the dark. The simple solution here is more streetlights.

We know that women tend to frequent commercial districts more than men and we also know that women tend to feel more vulnerable because of environmental conditions. As such, when we plan walkable communities around a commercial district we need to consider those issues that concern women the most.

Issues such as the types of businesses available, the ability to walk with their friends unencumbered, being in an environment that will not cause harm to them or their clothing, having suitable lighting as well as the restroom facilities and rubbish bins in conveniently located will all influence how a commercial area will be perceived.

The development of walkable communities can be a daunting task especially for older communities with an infrastructure already in place, and with an established commercial constituency. However, it can be done with a little patience and understanding of human motivation and perception based behaviors.

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