Walkable and Livable Communities
This weekend I traveled to Port Townsend, Washington, for the annual meeting of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. I became interested in neighborhood livability and walkability through my work as a city councilman, representing the La Jolla neighborhood of Bird Rock. In 2000, as I campaigned for office, I heard residents complain about La Jolla Boulevard – it was unattractive, unmaintained and the businesses mostly failed. Worst of all, the street was a four-land highway so wide and the traffic speeds were so high that it was absolutely dangerous to cross from one side to the other, especially if you were pushing a stroller or a walker. At that time, Bird Rock was a place you merely drove through.
After I was elected, I worked hard to find a fix for Bird Rock, but the community was adamant that the solution would not come from City Hall. In the middle of the turmoil, I happened to hear Dan Burden (now the executive director of WALC), a presenter at a seminar on safe and walkable streets. Dan agreed to meet me in Bird Rock on a Sunday morning and we walked the community. Dan had technical expertise – he had been the bicycle coordinator for the state of Florida — and had helped solve traffic problems around the country. He was an empathetic listener and understood the issues, and I became confident that with Dan’s help we could solve our problems.
I hired Dan with funds from my Council office budget and we got to work. First, Dan offered residents a walking audit of the area, followed by a design meeting with residents. Dan returned two weeks later with designs created from the input from the community. Soon, the community had, with Dan’s help, created a Bird Rock Traffic Plan. Since roundabouts were safer and more efficient – and nicer-looking – than traffic lights, the community chose to add five of them on the Boulevard, with more traffic calming measures throughout the neighborhood. The changes would be dramatic, but since the plan had been both created by and within the community, it had strong neighborhood support and the City Council approved it unanimously. Over the following years, we funded the $5.6 million plan from a mix of sources, including development fees, bicycle grants, street repair funds and a federal smart growth grant.
Seven years after we began, the Bird Rock community has been transformed into one of the best walkable communities in San Diego. La Jolla Boulevard went from four lanes to two. The average vehicular speed dropped from 45 mph to 25 mph. We added five, beautifully landscaped roundabouts and installed state-of-the-art pedestrian safety technology at all five crosswalks. New businesses have opened and neighbors have re-emerged from their homes in Bird Rock to find a very cool community right in their midst. It’s been held out as a case study by federal transportation authorities, and was the subject of their workshop last year. And it has won awards from public works associations, engineers, the Urban Lands Institute and Walk San Diego.
There are a lot of reasons to want neighborhoods to be great places for walking, with destinations nearby. It’s great for avoiding traffic congestion, getting exercise, lowering air pollution and building community with your neighbors. And as the work of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute grows, people will be talking about La Jolla Boulevard and Bird Rock across the country. And maybe you will be inspired, as I have been, by Dan Burden’s vision of community empowerment and neighborhoods for people. Here is his TED presentation:
How do you feel about having a walkable and livable community?