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Walkability moves beyond mere accessibility to pathways leading from point A to point B. Many factors that take into account the experience of traversing to a destination have to be accounted for. In other words, while the destination is the end goal it's the journey that makes it worthwhile.

/Eric Tank

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What is the walking experience in downtown Grand Rapids?

"Sixty three percent of blocks in Downtown do not feature the appeal that make urban envronments enjoyable to pedestrians." 

/Eric Tank

/Eric Tank

Written by Kristopher Larson, AICP

Last week, a local media outlet ran a story with a quote that read, “Not everybody is excited about walking a few blocks to and from their workplace.” Contextually, the quote referenced a Downtown employer describing the limit in distance between their place of business and their employees’ parking as a reason to move their business to the suburbs. So does this really mean that they wouldn’t walk a few blocks? I’d argue their justification isn’t simply about parking, or even a reluctance to walk. It’s about the walking experience. 

Every potential path of travel from their parking to their building is lined with inactive pedestrian environment, just like the suburbs. Conversely, vibrant urban environments like Monroe Center create the comparative experiential benefits that give downtowns their value. It’s the reason why we as consumers, and employers, flock to great streets that offer shopping, retail and vibrancy – to find those sights and smells, goods and services, and spontaneous interactions that preoccupy our minds and reduce the perception of distance.

As individuals of differing sensitivities, abilities and perspectives, we each have our own way of prioritizing cost, convenience and abundance in parking. Those differing positions on the topic fuel many of the heated debates that populate the comments sections of online news outlets. Rarely do communities enjoy such fevered dialog about the storage of anything, perhaps other than automobiles, landfills, and spent nuclear waste.

Grand Rapids is not unique in this regard. These volleys of local debate are common in growing communities where re-urbanization is occurring, as the cycle of reinvestment often includes moving the cheddar that is someone’s choice parking spot. Each of the three perspectives are exasperated by a suburban ethos that enabled a built environment scaled for and designed around car movement and storage. This ethos appeals to our pesky laziness bones by proudly trumpeting the benefit of not having to walk.

Developing cheap land, further and further out, served as the modus operandi for nearly seven decades of real estate development in America. Suburban development powered the American economy and enabled much of the cultural legacy of the 20th century: record home ownership levels, class- and racially-divided neighborhoods, automobile dependency, record levels of obesity and unsustainable infrastructure. This typology was so pervasive and lasted for so long that many Americans either forgot or never learned what it meant to live, work, or play an urban environment. 

And while we were busy hanging out at shopping malls, waiting for a ride home from soccer practice, and destroying the natural environment, we overlooked one of the key advantages of urban places: not having to drive. Simply put, classic urban America was designed around the pedestrian, making cities comfortable to experience while walking. Healthy public realms deliver an array of sights and sounds to captivate the mind’s eye, ear, and nose: ground-level shops tickled our shopping genes, cafés and restaurants tempted our taste buds, and public art stimulated our imaginations. In short, healthy public realms entice us with alluring sights and smells, inspire us through architectural forms that embrace people, and enable us to feel both independent and interconnected with our community while waiting patiently with strangers at a crosswalk.

During that great suburbanization of America, however, there was also a parallel movement to retrofit our core cities to model expectations of automobile orientation. Most cities shared a recipe for renewal that included tearing down buildings to construct surface parking, widening roads and converting them to one-way pairs designed to move cars fast, building single-use buildings whose ground floors do little to activate the public realm, and dismantling streetcar systems. The result: core cities with splotchy remnants of walkability, inconsistent land use patterns, and the subjugation of all other forms of mobility for the sake of the efficiency of automobile travel and storage.

Three decades of reinvestment in Downtown Grand Rapids has helped to remedy much of the urban renewal era destruction of our public realm. However, we still have a ways to go. The recent inventory completed for the GR Forward Downtown planning process shows that 63% of the block faces in Downtown are inactive – meaning that the adjacent buildings have solid walls (like the back of a movie theater), do not have an active ground-floor use (services, retail, food or drink), or have no building at all (surface parking or undeveloped sites). That means that 63% of blocks in Downtown do not feature the appeal that make urban environments enjoyable to pedestrians. 

We have many options for continuing to improve connectivity with our Downtown which range from lighting to art to building frontages to streetscape treatments. Almost every block of the public realm in our Downtown – some more than others - can be improved to help make walking the preferred way to move around our Downtown community. After all, every mode of travel – whether it is via transit, bike, or car – begins and ends with a walking trip. 

As we think about positioning our Downtown to be the best mid-sized Downtown in the Midwest, this reality becomes an imperative. Connecting all of our nodes of investment in Downtown is critical to helping regain equity in mobility and recapturing Downtown’s pedestrian scale.  As we move forward with GR Forward’s planning efforts – we hope that you will participate and tell us what paths of travel in Downtown that you experience, and how they can be improved. Our online collaborative map provides a simple way for you to spotlight areas for improvement and opportunity. Let’s reconnect. 

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