A Goal for 2015: Increased Walkability

Walkable, dense neighborhoods are good for us. That’s what this recent CityLab article concludes, citing numerous peer-reviewed research studies. And not only are these kinds of neighborhoods good for us, they’re good for the sustainability of our communities long term. For example:

  • Walkable, urban areas have huge economic impacts. As the CityLab article points out, “among the top 30 American metros, these walkable urban places account for 1% of available acreage, but compose as much as 50% of the country’s office, hotel, apartment, and retail square footage.”
  • Walkability increases property values.
  • Walkability is correlated with decreased crime.
  • Walkability is also correlated with better health outcomes, including better cognitive health.
  • Walkability is also associated with greater concentration of the arts, creativity, and civic engagement.

In this list, I see a lot of ideals and values that we as a community often talk about upholding and embracing. It’s part of the reason I find it so encouraging that our elected officials are working hard to improve walkability by bringing greater density to our communities.

Walkability, it’s important to note, is more than just providing sidewalks. It’s about connecting people to places without automobile reliance -- and that’s something Chapel Hill and Carrboro simply aren’t right now. It’s hard to purchase many household items here in Orange County, let alone to walk to a store that sells them. It’s equally difficult for most of us to walk to a grocery store given the areas where our current grocery stores are located, which is one of the most critical components of truly walkable communities.

Critical to creating truly walkable communities is sufficient residential density. Retailers, grocers, and other businesses simply can’t locate in areas without the necessary density to support their businesses, which is no doubt one of the reasons we still don’t have a grocery store in downtown Chapel Hill. Recent projects such as Shortbread Lofts and The Graduate are steps in the right direction to achieving the critical mass required to make downtown a walkable place, but we’re not there yet. I’m hopeful, though, that one day (in the not-too-distant future?), we can have a walkable downtown, where UNC students and long-term residents alike can live in our community without needing a car to access and acquire basic goods and services.

But a walkable downtown isn’t enough if we truly want to be a walkable community. Walkability has to go beyond a central downtown and into other neighborhoods throughout our community. The ongoing redevelopment effort at Ephesus-Fordham is a great example of the right steps to take. By turning an auto-centric area of town into a urban hub with residential and commercial development, plans for Ephesus-Fordham provide an excellent case study in how to disrupt outdated development patterns of sprawling parking lots and single-story strip malls in favor of denser, multi-story, mixed-use developments designed for people and not cars.

Similarly, if the Central West Small Area Plan is implemented, greater residential density and new amenities in this area could serve numerous existing neighborhoods that currently have no walkable access to goods or services. Redevelopment here is particularly critical to setting the stage for a truly walkable Chapel Hill given its close proximity to the future Carolina North campus and its position along what will hopefully be a future bus rapid transit corridor along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

Becoming a more walkable community and reaping the benefits of becoming such a place also means revising our processes to produce better outcomes in line with our values and vision for a sustainable, forward-thinking community. That means making it less expensive to do business here in Orange County and streamlining our development processes so when potential businesses are considering whether to locate here or in a neighboring county, Orange County isn’t at an immediate disadvantage for opportunities to enrich and strengthen our community as our municipalities look at future needs and preferences of residents.

Our elected leaders have taken many right steps toward moving us forward, closer to becoming a truly walkable, sustainable community. There are more steps to be taken, but I’m optimistic about where we’re going as I look ahead to 2015 -- and I’m confident we will continue to see our community’s forward-thinking leaders pushing for the policies we need to enact.

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