Durable Growth

Maintaining pedestrian interest in Petaluma

Fence along McDowell

Fence along McDowell

In Walkable City, Jeff Speck identifies the four elements that must be present for walkability.  His four fundamentals are usefulness, safety, comfort, and interest.  Speck effectively argues that the absence of any of the four undermines walkability.

The interest element has been undervalued in a pair of recent Petaluma situations.

The developer of the Deer Creek Village shopping center along N. McDowell Boulevard agreed, as a condition of the approval, to replace an aging fence on the other side of McDowell.  With shopping center construction well underway, the fence replacement was recently completed, to the elation of the nearby homeowners.

But look at the setting.  Pedestrians along the northbound lanes of McDowell have a minimum width sidewalk only feet from rushing traffic, with no lane of parking to provide a safety or comfort barrier, and adjoined by non-descript landscaping and the back of a plain wood fence.  Nor will the setting be much better along the southbound lanes.  Perhaps the pedestrians on that side will instead have retail buildings at which to look, but most of the buildings will be on the far side of large parking lots.

By any measure, the interest level for pedestrians along McDowell is nearly zero.  And the newly-replaced fence is part of the problem.

I’m not arguing that there’s a better solution.  The fence bounds the backyards of homes that face the other way.  The only possible change would have been a fence with more visual interest, but the improvement would have been tiny.

I’m only arguing that the neighbors didn’t need to be so darned celebratory about finding the funds to propagate a pedestrian setting that is so deficient.  Not showing chagrin about the situation sends the message that the pedestrian setting is acceptable and can be replicated elsewhere, which is a message that we can no longer afford to send.

Elsewhere in Petaluma is a situation that rankles even more.

A new owner recently took possession of a fine old home on one of the premier walking streets in the town.  The home sits on a small rise a short distance back from the street and is one of the landmarks on a street that has a high level of pedestrian interest.  The street also scores fairly well on safety and comfort, needing only a bit more usefulness, probably in the form of more convenient retail, to be a walkability paradise.

But the new owner is apparently oblivious to the role that his home plays in establishing walkability.  In a few short months, he has installed a solid board fence to reduce visibility of his home and then followed by planting a row of Italian cypress that will further obscure the stately structure.

His won’t be the first home on the street to be set behind a visually impenetrable barrier.  Nor do I expect that folks will stop walking on the street when they can no longer see his home.  But walkability in the early 21st century is too fragile to be so readily diminished.

I don’t know the owner.  I suspect that he’s like many folks and never considered the impact of his fencing and landscaping decisions on walkability.  And I acknowledge that we all have a right to a reasonable level of household privacy.  But that right must be balanced against the good of the community, of which walkability is a factor.

I have no intention of leaving a copy of Walkable City on the homeowner’s front steps.  But I gnash my teeth every time I pass by his home.

In a world where walkability is increasingly important, we afford neither to be oblivious to bad pedestrian settings nor to undermine one of the few good settings we have.

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.

2 comments to Maintaining pedestrian interest in Petaluma

  • Check out Sacramento St. in SF some time– rows of stately Victorians, and the owners have built boxy garages in front of just about every one, so if you’re walking down the street that’s all you get to see.

    • Alai, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll take that walk sometime. During my years in Oregon, I worked with a developer who claimed to have invented the term “snout house” for homes where the garage extended beyond the front plane of the living space, dominating the perspective from the street.