Stroll and the City

Posted on 07.10.13 – Insider, Lifestyles, People & Places

Frederick City’s planning office works to make sure residents and visitors can traipse through the city with ease. Deputy Director of Planning Joe Adkins has a pedometer clipped to his belt and estimates that at least a half dozen of his staff regularly walk or bike to city hall.

“The HR department is promoting 10,000 steps a day [for all city workers], so as an organization we try and promote walking,” Adkins says.

Downtown, with its tree-lined side streets and historic buildings to admire, speaks for itself as a great place to walk, as does Baker Park and Carroll Creek Linear Park. But Adkins says plans are moving forward with projects such as a pathway from the Golden Mile to Downtown and one connecting Worman’s Mill to the MARC Station on East Street, following the railroad tracks. He sounds almost gleeful when he talks about the idea of using the temporary pedestrian bridge on Motter Avenue, “if we can get it at a good price,” as a permanent link over Md. 26.

Walkers grooving with their way of getting around tend to evangelize. On a recent rainy Sunday, about 60 people delayed their dinners to fill the seats in City Hall to listen to Washington, D.C., architect and city planner Jeff Speck talk about Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, the title of his newest book. Speck is a huge fan of Frederick and if certain pieces of his family’s life hadn’t fallen into place he would now be calling the place home. “Frederick is a good example of a city that has great bones. Frederick may not be as dense or as large as other cities, but at its heart it performs extremely well,” he says.

Speck knows all about cities, having traveled throughout the country using his expertise to help government with smart growth and sustainable design. Cities hire him to figure out ways to attract jobs and residents—or, as was the case with Grand Rapids, Michigan, “How do we get our kids to stay?”

As part of his work he created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, a federal program to fight suburban sprawl. “I advocate for cities of all sizes,” Speck says. Why the emphasis on city walk- ability? “One of the biggest problems we face is obesity,” Speck says. “Do you realize that 25 percent of our young men and 40 percent of our young women are too heavy to be in the military? Inactivity is a larger factor than diet.” Looking at San Diego as an example, he says 25 percent of its residents that live in walk-able neighborhoods are obese, versus 60 percent in areas of the city where walking is not an attractive or safe option.

“Walking has to be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting,” he says.

Speck sees a shift in the culture. He recalls growing up in suburbia and watching TV shows like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, also based in suburbia. Young adults today may have grown up in the suburbs, but they watched Sex and the City or Friends and Seinfeld, all shows set in New York City. There was an allure to living in a big city. Location became important so that “64 percent of that generation decided first where they wanted to live and then found a job.” Another statistic he throws out is that “one out of four kids opts out of driving” which means they need to live in a place where there is access to mass transportation, or they can walk.

Portland, Oregon, was one city ahead of the curve, Speck says. In the 1970s and ‘80s the city “made the decision to stop building highways” and to invest in bicycles, walking and mass transportation. “They drive 20 percent less than the typical American.” Portland focuses on nature and a healthier lifestyle “and people want to be in these places.”

Speck believes that if a city can get walk-ability right, the social, economic and environmental benefits will follow. The question, he poses, “Which cities are going to do it, and do it with heart?”