This stormwater drain in Portland, Maine reminds passerby of the local aquatic life that depends on clean water.

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Photo courtesy of Kristine.

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Minneapolis at Dusk

Posted: September 15, 2017 in architecture, art, crosswalk, sidewalks
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On a recent trip to Minnesota, I had the chance to go on a short side trip to Minneapolis. During my stroll nearing twilight, I came across jaw-dropping architecture and inviting sidewalks and streetscapes.

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In Silver Spring, Maryland, I came across this colorful crosswalk:

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Although the hues are different, the pattern of alternating colors  reminded me of the rainbow mountains of Gansu, China.

 

Saint Paul is an easy city to like. It’s comfortable for pedestrians and interesting sights abound. Here is a sampling of art and architecture around Saint Paul, with a dash of Peanuts characters.

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Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown, was a native of Saint Paul. The city commemorates the Peanuts characters at Landmark Plaza, a downtown park.

The state capital of Minnesota, Saint Paul is situated on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. I recently visited Saint Paul for the first time, to attend the National Walking Summit.

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By and large, the downtown is very walkable and interesting architecture abounds.

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If there was anything lacking, it was not seeing many people walking around. When rush hour hits, the office workers get into their cars and flee into some other part of the city or state.

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Saint Paul is implementkng some innovative transportation policies, such as separated bicycle lanes (also known as cycletracks) so I hope this draws in additional residents and visitors to the city.

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On a recent trip to a northern suburb of Philadelphia, I was astounded to come across arterial streets without any sidewalks to speak of.

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This was only a few blocks from Sesame Place, an amusement park that touts itself as family-friendly. How about installing some family-friendly sidewalks to allow people to walk to the park? Instead, what I saw was the opposite: multiple “no pedestrian signs” warning people not to walk here. A shameful approach to transportation policy.

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The human species took off only after we gained the ability to stand upright. In fact, the ability to walk is a defining characteristic of our species. But over the last seventy years we have forgotten to harness our ability to walk, contributing to both the obesity epidemic and to climate change. Our car-centric American suburbs contribute disproportionately to both of these crises. People who live in sprawling subdivisions have a higher obesity rate than people who live in compact neighborhoods, and emit more greenhouse gas emissions than their urban counterparts.

To overcome both the obesity crisis and climate change, we need to make it easier, from a design standpoint, to get off our butts and off our cars, and back on our feet. While there is no one size-fits-all answer to retrofit the suburbs into walkable places, here are four approaches worth considering.

1. Start at the center

People are more likely to walk to a destination that is within half a mile, about 10 minutes away. Dan Burden, one of the foremost walkability experts of our time, recommends transforming the centers of suburban areas into higher-density villages that are more conducive to walking and financially attractive to businesses. The suburban community of Kirkland, Washington, is currently going through such a transformation, creating a mixed-use village center at the site of an ageing shopping mall.

2. Implement Vision Zero policies

The Vision Zero safety initiative focuses on eliminating traffic-related fatalities by taking a holistic approach to improve the design of the transportation system.  Vision Zero originated in Sweden, where pedestrian fatalities were reduced by half after implementation. Over twenty-two communities in the US, among them New York City, Washington DC, and Los Angeles, have so far adopted Vision Zero policies. Among the US adoptees there is one suburban county, Montgomery County in Maryland, whose leaders have committed to Vision Zero, and the county government has released a draft Vision Zero plan for public comment.

A big focus of Vision Zero is reducing speed limits. The survival rate of a pedestrian involved in a car crash increases from 20 percent to 90 percent when the speed limit is reduced from 40 to 20 miles per hour. By bringing pedestrians and cyclists on equal footing with drivers, Vision Zero makes roads safer for all users.

3. Make walking fun

Walking can help family, friends, and neighbors feel more connected with themselves, with each other, and with their neighborhood. Community walks have the potential to bring together people from different walks of life, and can be organized by local governments, community organizations, or even by individual residents. There are a number of organizations whose primary mission is to bring people together by walking, including Girl Trek and Walk2Connect, and some have active chapters throughout the country.

 4.  Help those who are already walking

A greater share of low income people now live in the suburbs than in cities.  Many people who are out walking in the suburbs are likely doing it because they cannot afford car ownership. The places traversed by pedestrians in the suburbs are often putting their lives in danger— inexistent or narrow strips of sidewalk alongside high speedways; poorly marked crosswalks; long distances between crossings.

There are improvements that can and should be made to make it safer for people who are already walking. It’s the equitable thing to do, and safety improvements will incentivize others to start walking, including those who may have more mobility options. Small improvements, like adding pedestrian crossing islands to a long crosswalk, help to increase safety and make the walking experience more comfortable.

 

Much work needs to be done to redesign the suburbs to be more walking-friendly. But not all of it requires heavy lifting, and some of the work can start immediately. Together we can bring about a suburban walking revolution.