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Foot traffic

What will it take to make Fort Wayne a “walkable” city?

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-05-20


Fort Wayne fears a lot of things. Flooding. Change. A Democrat in the White House. And walking.

Ask what the biggest impediments to downtown development are and on the shortlist will be “lack of convenient parking spaces.” By this we usually mean we might have to walk an entire city block or two to get where we want to go.

Yet if we really want that kind of vibrant, bustling downtown, we’re going to have to walk, and we’re going to have to make downtown Fort Wayne more walkable.

Sure, downtown Fort Wayne isn’t that big. Walking a couple blocks shouldn’t be a chore, but in Fort Wayne, it is. Your Humble once lived in a sizeable city known (among other things) for its public transportation and its pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, and found he probably clocked several miles a day on foot and didn’t even think about it, even when the weather was miserable.

Yet walking three blocks in Fort Wayne can seem like a trek out of Doctor Zhivago in the winter or Lawrence of Arabia during the summer, with vast stretches of asphalt standing in for the frozen tundra or blasted desert. One of the biggest problems, according to Dan Burden, is there are no people. “The number one characteristic of a walkable city is you cannot stand anywhere and not see people in every direction all the time,” he says. “The first and most critical measure is how many other people are out there walking with you.”

Dan Burden is the Executive Director of Walkable Communities, Inc. a non-profit corporation based in Orlando, Florida that focuses on helping communities become more walkable. He’s a nationally recognized authority on bicycle and pedestrian facilities and has spent 25 years developing, promoting, and evaluating alternative transportation facilities, traffic calming practices (basically, that means getting drivers to slow down), and sustainable community design. He also works with Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, a community planning and design firm that specializes in transportation, landscape architecture, and environmental services.

Burden estimates that his work has taken him to over 2500 towns in the U.S. and around the world. He names Chicago — the city most Fort Wayne residents use as the reference point to tell anyone else in the world where we’re from — as the most walkable city in the U.S. “For many, many reasons,” he says. “Beautiful architecture, the orientation to the rivers and the lake, the scale of the blocks, the charm, the dignity of so many neighborhoods… Chicago is one of the greats.”

As far as smaller cities, Burden lists Keene, New Hampshire; Princeton, New Jersey; and the two Portlands (Maine and Oregon). “In Indiana, I haven’t been to all the communities, but I have declared Columbus, Indiana as a walkable city,” he says. “I’m also prepared to put Bloomington in the same category. They need to work on a few things a little bit, but they’ve got a number of things going in the downtown. Just a little more and they’ll be there.”

And Fort Wayne? Burden says out of all the cites he’s been to, he’s never been as “scared” in a town of this size as he has been walking in downtown Fort Wayne. “It’s mostly its emptiness,” Burden says. “It’s not that you don’t have great blocks and beautiful buildings and nice parks and greens. Everything is there, except the people. You don’t have the people yet.”

I conceded that yes, after business hours and during weekends, the place seems like a ghost town… “No, even in the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the morning,” Burden responds. “I felt like I was one of the few people out there.”

Burden spent several days in Fort Wayne during early May at the behest of city planners, leading a few public talks and meeting with officials. Pam Holocher, the planner for the City if Fort Wayne, said that Plan-It Allen, the county’s comprehensive plan that was adopted last year, and Downtown Blueprint Plus, the city’s plan for tackling downtown revitalization (covered in FWR #56) recommended looking at transportation in a multi-modal manner. “There were a number of recommendations, but they weren’t really put together in a comprehensive fashion,” she says. “We needed someone to come to our community and audit our downtown from that perspective, and then really give us a set of recommendations on just how we move forward.”

Burden offered a few small suggestions that might help the city to (ahem) move forward with incorporating multi-modal transportation into its redevelopment plans, suggestions as simple as more public benches (for example) and, from the “I-never-thought-of-that” category, reverse diagonal parking. “A lot of other communities, from a safety perspective, they’ve learned that if you back into parallel parking it’s much safer,” Holocher says, explaining that it makes the driver slow down and take stock of his or her surroundings, and it’s also much safer to pull out of.

Yet making Fort Wayne a walkable city is as complicated as anything else connected to downtown development. Most people recognize that sidewalk traffic is a huge part of what makes any downtown environment feel alive and vibrant. But in order to get people downtown, there has to be something to make them want to come downtown, and most developers want to know that there’ll be customers for their store/restaurant/business, etc. before investing loads of money and time…

The new baseball stadium, as we’ve been told, is a catalyst project, but it’ll be a failure if it doesn’t help spur some kind of development to the rest of downtown. Burden believes the stadium is a good start, and thinks Fort Wayne in general has a lot of potential to work with. “You’ve got what I refer to as the right bones,” he says. “You have a lot of great landmark buildings, more than your fair share for a town of your size. You’ve got some bad ones, but as the land values go up, they’ll come down. You also have a lot of good common space, public space, plaza parks, open spaces, a couple of good gateway entries and things like that. A lot of towns don’t have any of those things. You’ve got brand new investments in things like libraries. And your block form. That’s something… you can’t come into a town and give it to them.”

We’ve also lucked out by not putting a massive freeway right through the middle of downtown — an idea that goes against one nugget of local perceived wisdom. “The notion of flowing people out of town or across town as quickly as you can never really made good economic sense,” Burden says. He points out that communities get stuck with this massive amount of concrete that’s not supported by tax and showing signs of wear and tear from handling far more traffic than it was originally designed for. Many towns are stuck with the prospect of spending billions to fix these roads. Burden says Gattling Jackson recently worked on projects in Chattanouga, TN, and Trenton, NJ that involved tearing down the freeway and putting in grade streets. He says the areas are booming, and Glatting Jackson is now gearing up to take down the “great Alaska viaduct” in Seattle.

So, we’ve got some things going for us. On the other hand, we’re fighting a movement in architecture and design that’s basically defined the U.S. for decades. “It wasn’t more than 60 – 80 years ago that anyone would have dreamed up a town not based on walking,” Burden says. “Nobody would have dreamed that up, and anyone who did would have failed instantly. It was only the advent of what we call the carbon era, the ability to borrow against the fuels that were in storage forever, that we began to lose our common sense about scale, proportion, being able to combine activities, and we came up with these bizarre notions about Euclidean zoning.”

Burden is talking about Euclid, Ohio here, not the Greek philosopher. He’s referring to the 1926 case in which the Supreme Court decided that the town of Euclid had the power to establish zones for different kinds of land use, thereby creating the zoning laws we have in place today. By isolating land use, we made it almost impossible to travel to the store or the restaurant or the movie theater by foot. The car became king. Burden says that by the time modernist architects figured out that wouldn’t work, the engineers had come on board and were designing roads and suburbs and communities for cars rather than people. Downtowns died all over the country because we found a way to incentivize growth out of town. “We found a way not to invest in the schools downtown, the buildings downtown, the parks downtown, and people got the message,” Burden says.

Burden says it’s essential that communities get away from that Euclidean zoning concept, so that wherever we live, we’re in walking distance of a park, or a school, or some kind of retail establishment. “I’m convinced we’ll get that back,” he says. “I think every time we see a Starbucks open up, it’s a signal that people want that intimacy, they want a place to go where they can bump into other people.”

Burden, along with many other people studying city environments, puts a big premium on how cities can connect people. You don’t go to, say, a baseball game to get a better view; you go for the experience of celebrating (or commiserating) with fellow fans. Similar things could be said about concerts or festivals or whatever.

But there are also some powerful economic and practical reasons that we should look at ways to make downtown Fort Wayne and its environs more friendly to pedestrian and bicycles. It’s all about creating a place with… well, “place.” For better or for worse, Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class continues to serve as the bible for people interested in urban revitalization, and one of the contentions of that work is that those innovative, creative folks we’re all supposed to want to come to (or stay in) our communities are looking to live somewhere with character. If there’s no “there” there, they aren’t interested. It’s all about place making. Burden points out that there’s nothing necessarily magical about San Antonio or Austin, for example, but those places have worked — and worked hard — to create a sense of place.

Another reason… well, have you filled up your car lately? “With us approaching this whole greater, much greater, issue of gasoline prices and the ability to afford to drive a car and what reduced mobility means as these costs go up — and they will continue to go up — then we need something to replace that with that’s affordable,” Burden says. “Turns out, it’s been right underneath us the whole time.”

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