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Sat, April 20

Walkable Cities: a good idea or not?

Image courtesy City of Prescott

Image courtesy City of Prescott

This blog is usually written about common sense things that ordinary citizens can do to make their homes more environmentally friendly. Rarely do we step back and focus on the bigger picture.

Lately, however, I have been reading an interesting book, the title of which is "Walkable City: How Downtown can save America, One Step at a Time," by Jeff Speck. In it, he makes a point that I found rather startling, which was that "trading all of your incandescent lightbulbs for energy savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does each week."

I realize that we as individuals have very little control over whether our city is friendly to walking. It is much easier to harvest the "feel good" of changing a light bulb. However, I believe that one of the advantages of posting a blog is that it can stimulate a lively discussion. Toward that end, please consider this an invitation to submit your comments, ideas, and criticisms in response to this blog, so that we can get some good feedback. If you hate these ideas, don't hold back. let me know. If you have better ideas, I want to hear them.

One of the things that makes a city more walkable is to have more people living within walking distance of the basic amenities. In the years prior to the growth of the suburbs, cities and towns were intuitively designed around the fact that most people either walked or rode a horse into town. Thus, it is that you see older neighborhoods that were created before the advent of the automobile that are clustered around the corner drug store, the coffee shop, the grocery, the dentist, the school yard and the church. Now, I realize that we are no longer living in "Andy of Mayberry" times, but I do think that there are certain things that we can do to enhance the quality of life in our town.

Mr. Speck asserts that "walkable cities generate wealth by shear virtue of the propinquity that they offer." In order to foster that "propinquity," (I love that word . . . look it up) the City of Prescott could encourage more housing on in-fill lots near the downtown area by relaxing its parking requirements for new multi-story residential projects. As I look around the area within five blocks of the courthouse plaza, I can identify several empty lots as well as buildings that are ripe for new construction or renovation into loft apartments. An increased population in the downtown area would encourage the local businesses to stay open later and create a lively presence that is noticeably lacking during a typical week night.

Another way to make Prescott more walkable would be to augment the public transportation to and from the downtown area. I imagine that you have seen Prescott's version of the rush hour. Everyday, people drive into town to work and play and then retreat back to their suburban homes in their private automobiles. A new fleet of busses or vans that sufficiently brought people to and from the core of the city on a timely and reliable basis would greatly alleviate the traffic, as well as save money, reduce pollution, and free up parking spaces downtown. People could then plan their trips into town with the idea of walking within a certain radius to get to their destinations.

Alternative pathways could also be greatly enhanced to encourage pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Think of a safer, well-lit, developed walkway along Granite Creek, with beautifully developed plazas, seating areas, sidewalks, and trees and cafes with customers into the wee hours of the night. Think of connecting links between the courthouse plaza and Sharlot Hall Museum, as well as the old Santa Fe Depot, or an arts district from the historic Elks theatre to the Prescott Center for the Arts and beyond. Think of outdoor dining on Cortez Street from Union Street to Gurley, and the north half of Cortez, from Willis to the crosswalk.

These are not new ideas. The community has been talking about them, and doing things about them for decades. Sometimes it is difficult to see the incremental changes that take place over time. Remember the "metal ski slopes" that were finally removed from the buildings on Gurley and Cortez streets?

So, although changing our city for the better is not as easy as changing a light bulb, lets keep the discussion moving forward. I know that some people will dislike these ideas, or ask, "Where will the money come from?" That is fine. That is exactly what we need to be talking about. Talk is cheap, but it can lead to action if we have a better vision of our future.

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