Durable Growth

City Repair: The concept and the book

Intersection project (from Streets Wiki)

Intersection project (from Streets Wiki)

Urbanism has many facets, but walkability is integral to most of them.  A goal of much of my blogging is encouraging more new walkable urban development.  I also write about enhancing walkability in places where it exists, but is flawed.

It’s also imperative to add walkability to existing neighborhoods where little walkability now exists.  And when I write of walkability, I don’t mean the exercise kind of walkability, but walkability that meets Jeff Speck’s four standards of walkability: safety, comfort, interest, and usefulness.  We have vast post-World War II neighborhoods for which Jeff Speck walkability was designed out by code.

(In “Walkable City”, Speck proposes that we use a walkability triage in which we devote no resources to post-World War II neighborhoods, arguing that that they’re lost causes.  I understand his point, but am unwilling to give up so quickly.  There are a lot of people living in those walkability wastelands and I believe they deserve attention.)

Retrofitting Jeff Speck-style walkability into unwalkable neighborhoods requires multiple tasks, for many of which city hall has primary responsibility.

Modifying the zoning ordinance to allow existing homes to be converted to retail uses?  That’s a city hall task.

Changing the zoning map to allow stores on vacant parcels?   That’s a city hall task.

Expanding transit systems so the more stops can be reached on foot?  That’s a city hall task, along with higher levels of government.

Fixing the sidewalks and street crossings so that pedestrians are safer?  That’s mostly a city hall task.

But not everything is within the purview of city hall.  Getting folks walking until casual meetings become so commonplace that a critical mass is created and retailers are motivated to move into a neighborhood?  City hall can’t touch that one.  It’s a task for the people we see in the mirror every morning.

But relying on individual decisions to reach a critical mass, especially when cars are so darned convenient, is somewhere between unlikely and impossible.  We need a mechanism to build a group walkability consensus.

Luckily for us, there are groups that do exactly that.  City Repair of Portland is one.  City Repair was a pioneer in helping neighbors to bond together to build features that reclaim walkability for their neighborhoods.

My copy of “Pocket Neighborhoods” is currently on loan, so I don’t recall the exact story, but author Ross Chapin writes of an early City Repair project, perhaps the very first one.  As I recall, a Portland neighborhood felt that an intersection needed traffic calming, thereby improving walkability.  They believed a painted design in the intersection would slow traffic.  They sought approval to do the work themselves.  City hall said no.

So they did it anyway.  On a Saturday morning, 200 neighbors blocked the surrounding streets and began to apply paint to the intersection.  The police were called.  The first officer on the scene saw 200 happy adults and children busily painting.  He shook his head and drove away.  He knew that there was no upside to trying to stop the effort.  Within months, the City of Portland had approved the project and had also adopted rules that would allow other neighborhoods to do similar projects.

From that beginning, City Repair has continued and has tried to export the concept to other neighborhoods and cities.  Growth has been slow.  It’s hard work to build critical masses, especially when the message is that neighbors have the right to exert more control over their neighborhoods, shoving city hall aside.  It’s not how most of us were raised.

City Repair has written a book about what they’ve done and what they hope to continue doing.  “City Repair’s Placemaking Guidebook: Creative Community Building in the Public Right-of-Way” can seem repetitive at times, but hammers home the key lessons, which are (1) build a strong consensus within a neighborhood, (2) don’t settle on a project until everyone is on board and has had the opportunity to participate in the process, and (3) don’t be afraid to push if city hall doesn’t accept the concept at first.

There have been a few stabs at City Repair projects in Sonoma County.  One correspondent recalls chalking an intersection in Santa Rosa a few years back.  But, like in many areas, a critical mass has been hard to gather.

But that doesn’t mean that people have stopped trying.  There’s a group in Petaluma trying to bring build a consensus around City Repair.  It’s an exciting possibility about which I’ll offer more information in my next few posts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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