Durable Growth

Allocating sidewalk width

Poorly allocated sidewalk

Poorly allocated sidewalk

For the past few months, Petaluma Urban Chat has been reading “The Smart Growth Manual” by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon.  Unfortunately, our discussions were disjointed because we had several speakers scheduled over the same period.

It was a shame that we couldn’t focus more effectively because the book is worth the effort.  With tight and cogent one-page descriptions of 138 key elements of urbanism, it’s a marvel of editing.  It’s a book to which one can and should return frequently for quick refreshers.

It’s also hard to find a single page which doesn’t trigger insights about our built environment.

To give an example, Page 9.6 addresses sidewalk obstructions.  It proposes that every sidewalk have four distinct zones, a curb zone where bumpers overhang or car doors open, a furnishing zone where street trees, utility boxes, streetlights, and trash cans are sited, a walking zone that is be kept clear for pedestrians, and a frontage zone for benches or sidewalk dining.  It’s a commonsensical approach and, the authors do a fine job of putting common sense in a clear, concise language.

One would hope that everyone would agree with the approach.  But look at the sidewalk in the photo.  It’s a mess.

To begin, the columns for the overhang were angled inward into what should have been the walking zone.  It’s unclear why they were angled, perhaps it was an architect who valued quirky aesthetics over walkability.  But vertical columns would have put the footings in the furnishings zone, where they belonged.

Given the encroachment into the walking zone, the restaurant owner made a reasonable adjustment, putting a table in what should been the furnishing zone.  But on the far side of the awning, the tables returns to what should been the frontage zone.

With the walking zone weaving back and forth, it makes pedestrians feel like broken field runners.  One of the four essential elements of walkability noted by Speck in his Walkable City is comfort, a sense of being in the right place and belonging there.  This zigzag walking zone surely undermines the comfort of the sidewalk.

And then there’s the bench.  Rather than being in frontage zone where sitters could look for arriving friends, it’s flipped around and put in the furnishing zone, where sitters can only look at the diners in the restaurant and wonder if a parking car is about to jump the curb and hit them from behind.

I know that it’s only a shopping center and that a bad sidewalk allocation won’t have much impact on whether people shop there, but walkability is about getting the details right.  This is a setting in which the details are most assuredly gotten wrong.

Schedule Notes

Petaluma Urban Chat:  The next Petaluma Urban Chat meeting will be tomorrow evening, Tuesday, February 11.  We’ll convene at 5:30 at the Aqus Cafe at 2nd and H Streets.  The discussion will begin at 5:45.

With our reading of “The Smart Growth Manual’ at an end, we’ll be selecting our next book.  If you enjoy this blog, please join us.

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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