Tuesday, May 12, 2009

City plan to put more feet on our streets

Three numbers point to the major public health crisis that is killing hundreds of thousands of US citizens every year. This crisis is not the influenza, swine or otherwise, or HIV/AIDS. There's no doubt those are serious public health issues, but so are the numbers 30, 25 and 365. Tragic numbers too because, according to Mark Fenton, they can and must be changed and, in so doing, save many lives.

Thirty minutes of physical activity per day is what most of us should be getting, but only 25 percent of us are getting that amount, and this lack of activity, combined with poor nutrition in our diets, leads to 365,000 deaths in the US each year. Sure, you say, get more exercise and eat healthy. Duh. Everybody knows that. And yet, as Fenton showed during his fast-paced presentation at the Seattle Public Library Central branch auditorium on Monday, May 11, that 25 percent has stayed steady for the past 10 years.

Can cities do anything about this public health crisis? Can Seattle or Boston or New York or Louisville change these numbers? Yes we can, Fenton said, by putting more feet on our streets. He is a self-described pedestrian nerd, who is also a nationally renowned walking wonk, crossing the country in search of what makes cities walkable, sustainable, successful places to live, work and play. He's finding cities that are making changes that make a difference on the bottom line of a community's economic health as well as the waist line of its' citizens. Fenton is here in Seattle, as a member of the plan's consultant team, to tout the publication of the draft Master Pedestrian Plan. The plans' stated goal is nothing less than to make this place the most walkable city in America.

Based out of a small town near Boston, Fenton is an avid fan of the Burke-Gilman trail and often speaks of it when presenting walkability lectures elsewhere around the country. One thing to pay attention to, he said, is to look at the way people have made their own connectors to the Burke-Gilman; all those little "goat paths" that have sprung up along the length of the trail. Look at formalizing those routes to make to them even better, he said. Sacramento has a similar trail that passes through wonderful scenery but he shows on the screen that section of the trail that passes underneath a freeway to connect the downtown with the rest of the trail.

Fenton lit up, his body a life-sized exclamation mark, during his appraisal comparing elements of Seattle's plan with other cities around the country. You can see for yourself what the plan is at the SDOT Pedestrian Master Plan website. His Powerpoint slides were filled with examples of smart practices from other cities including simple strategies to re-align existing streets that provide safe and efficient access not for just for cars, but also for pedestrians, bikes, and mass transit.

One of his favorite stories came from Harrisburg, PA., where an office worker wanting to save on parking proved to be the epitome of the kind of change than can happen when cities plan for pedestrians in a mix of downtown access. At this point, we saw projected large on the auditorium-sized screen a red circle around a pudgy guy in a shirt, tie and slacks walking across a busy pedestrian bridge spanning a river. This bridge connects the downtown to an island with a softball field and parking in the nearby lot that is cheaper than parking in downtown. Fenton finds about this lot by talking to this guy who tells him that he has to walk about 15 minutes each way every weekday from the lot to his workplace but he saves a lot of money. The funny thing is, Fenton said, he complimented this guy for the amount of exercise he gets. He replied, "What exercise? I just don't want pay that much for parking!" That, Fenton said, is one way to up that 25 percent. Don't tell people "you need to exercise more!" Go to this guy's workplace and tell everybody there, "You'll save a lot of money if you park on the island!"

Following the presentation, a handful of us took a quick jaunt from the library's 5th Ave entrance, over the I-5, to the Freeway Park and back to the library. Fenton was constantly snapping digital pics. Waiting to cross streets at the traffic lights, he turned to group and asked, "On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being a terrible walk, 10 being the best, what's your score, just shout out." We had to shout at our first stop just after crossing I-5. The crowd settled around 5 or 6. "But, not 1, why not?" Fenton asked. Yes, the traffic noise bouncing off the concrete and glass made it hard to hear conversation, but the sidewalk was in decent condition, and the numerous mature trees provided some greenery to counter the grey. "You guys are harsh," Fenton said, "In Houston, they would love to see this kind of street." (Note to self, Houston probably not a good vacation spot.)

Our second stop was inside Freeway Park. Except for a pressure washer compressor chugging away, the park was certainly more quiet off the street; the sound of the freeway traffic muffled beneath us. Freeway Park has had its' share of lessons learned about urban green space, we told Fenton. The original scenario pictured putting a forest in the midst of the city. What's wrong with this picture? The forest proved to be a haven of criminal activity. The park was subsequently thinned. It stills serves as a pedestrian and bike connector between First Hill and the Convention Center. Such connectors being good things in Fenton's lexicon, he liked the park but since it was a cold, windy day, it was hard to see how well used it could be.

Our final stop before looping back to the library was at 5th Ave and University. The wide sidewalks, mature trees, nearby shops all scored good points on the groups' impromptu walkability scale.

"Step up to the challenge, Seattle," Fenton said before he was whisked away to another lecture he was giving, "other cities, Boston, New York, Louisville will challenge you, but the whole country is watching you. No pressure!" Find out more about Mark Fenton at the PBS website America's Walking.

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