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WalkShops: Valuable Step in Developing Walkable Communities

Walkability tops homebuyers wish lists. Survey after survey agree. The NAR 2020 Community Preference Survey reports that 80 percent of respondents see a walkable community as an important attribute and half of those participating in a recent Urban Land Institute Survey reported that walkability was either the top or a high priority in where they chose to live.

But in a post-pandemic country, walkability will be more than a wish. Many industry experts believe that walkable communities will become a necessity for city planning and public health. Cameron Kinzer, government affairs director for the Boise Regional REALTORS® (BRR), summed up the potential long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on walkable communities.

“I think we’ll see a big paradigm shift towards more walkable communities as we come out of this pandemic. Residents will likely want the ability to walk to the stores they need while staying close to home. Cities will start to look different as changes are implemented to better protect communities.”

Lacey Everett, director of political affairs and engagement for MIBOR in central Indiana, agrees. “This pandemic has opened our eyes to several realities including housing, mobility and connectivity challenges.”

To meet current and future realities, vision and good planning will be essential in creating walkable communities. Mark Fenton, a nationally recognized expert on walkability, public health, planning and transportation and former host of the PBS series “America’s Walking,” explains that walkability is contingent on good design — mix of land use, connectivity, functional and inviting design and safety and accessibility for everyone.

“It comes down to a difference in how communities are laid out. Compelling evidence suggests that how a community is designed encourages or discourages routine activity.”

Understanding the barriers and opportunities for enhanced activity are the first steps in planning walkable communities. WalkShops give community leaders a first-hand look at an area in order to better understand the neighborhood’s realities and possibilities and help inform planning and design. “On Common Ground” has previously highlighted successful WalkShop events in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Franklin, Ind., and Boise, Idaho. It’s time to check on the progress of their walkability efforts.

Expanding Connectivity in Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach, S.C., has long been a popular seaside vacation destination. The Coastal Carolina REALTORS® Association (CCAR) organized a WalkShop to explore the possibilities of Kings Highway in the hopes of getting tourists and residents to venture beyond the beaches and into the downtown. That event not only spurred on action in the Kings Highway area, but throughout the city.

“Probably the greatest accomplishment for the city of Myrtle Beach is the development of a Downtown Master Plan, which was adopted by the city council and is currently being implemented. The entire plan has walkability as being the necessary component to make downtown redevelopment successful,” explains Carol Coleman, former planner for the city of Myrtle Beach and currently local planning services director for the Waccamaw Regional Council of Government.

The Master Plan helps prioritize needed improvements or expansions of existing facilities and identifies future opportunities. It has also been instrumental in the creation of a number of downtown festivals and events that attract tourists and residents alike. In recent years, the city has added more mixed-use developments that attract new residents because of their increased walkability and access to common community space. A multipurpose trail connects the mixed-use, downtown Market Common development with neighborhoods throughout the city.

Coleman points out that NAR’s initial support of the WalkShop and CCAR’s ongoing activities have been pivotal in the understanding of the importance of walkability and the creation of a variety of initiatives. “Without NAR’s help and the leadership of CCAR, I don’t think the awareness of walkable communities from both a health benefits standpoint and a tool of economic development would have been so clear to the city council.”

Madison Cooper, CCAR’s government affairs director, says they’ve established strong working relationships and are active at many levels considering a variety of development and infrastructure issues. “CCAR is engaged with local and state officials in advocating not only for the implementation of the Downtown Master Plan, but also focusing on how walkability fits in to the ongoing broader discussion on the need for mass transit for our county.”

“Moving forward, the way Americans approach public spaces is likely to look very different,” Cooper says. Whether it be better access to destinations throughout the city or the ability to walk, bike or take public transportation to neighborhood amenities.

A Valuable Resource in Central Indiana

In Indiana, MIBOR REALTOR® Association’s WalkShop took participants on a tour of a mile stretch of US 31 in Franklin, Ind. At the time of the WalkShop, Franklin was updating its comprehensive plan. Last year it was voted Indiana’s Best Main Street destination. Since that first WalkShop, Franklin has reconstructed streets, activated trails and created connections throughout the city. But the impact goes far beyond Franklin. MIBOR covers a 12-county service area, and Lacey Everett, MIBOR’s director of political affairs and engagement explains how the Franklin WalkShop was a jumping off point for walkability initiatives throughout central Indiana.

“We essentially used the city of Franklin as a key example, and made the connection that almost all of our communities face similar challenges with connectivity, accessibility and pedestrian safety. The takeaways from this experience have continued to be very valuable and the continued resources provided by NAR on this topic have been great to use as follow-up in our communities.”

Everett says the recent completion of two MIBOR research projects — a Regional Housing Analysis and an update to its 2012 Community Preference Survey — discovered that not only do people prefer walkable communities but that higher-density, accessible communities actually extended growth and land-use options. Officials want to learn more about the research findings.

“MIBOR has received high demand for presentations of these research findings which has allowed us a very valuable position at the table with local planners and developers, city councilors and mayors,” Everett says. “We’ve been able to lend subject matter expertise and boots on the ground feedback from our members.”

Improving Walkability in Boise

People love living in Boise, as illustrated by the city topping Livability magazine’s 2019 Best Places to Live list. When the BRR organized a WalkShop of congested, four-lane Orchard Street, there were two priorities for the event — bring together the right mix of city and county staff and determine the needs and wants of the community. Some initiatives were implemented pretty quickly while others are still evolving.

“The city took action to improve a cross street attached to Orchard, adding sidewalk and reduced traffic measures, which was a welcome improvement!” explains BRR’s Cameron Kinzer. “Groups that took part in the WalkShop have created a mural and cleaned up a nearby street to make it easier and more inviting for residents to gather and access certain businesses.”

BRR has developed positive working relationships with city staff, especially with the planning department. Neighborhood associations have also been working with city staff to make Orchard Street more inviting for drivers to stop and shop.

But Kinzer admits other progress is slow because the Ada County Highway Department (ACHD) oversees all road planning, construction and maintenance throughout the county, including the city of Boise. And getting the ACHD to prioritize improvements to Orchard Street has been difficult.

“The walkability portion is still a work in progress, with project costs and disagreement on how to best implement certain changes being the biggest barriers at this time.” But Kinzer explains headway is being made. “We believe that some of the philosophy we introduced has been slowly implemented in other projects the highway district oversees, perhaps a result of the education opportunity we provided during our WalkShop. It certainly allowed us to improve relationships with several of the commissioners.”

That’s been the result in all three communities — some visible improvements to walkability in both targeted neighborhoods and expanded areas and improved relationships and professional collaborations all around. REALTORS® in Myrtle Beach, central Indiana and Boise support walkability as a priority and are actively involved in maximizing how greater connectivity helps build accessible communities.

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About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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