Over the past few months, we've been working with the Genesee Transportation Council (GTC) and a great team of consultants to organize walkability audits in ten communities in the Genesee/Finger Lakes region. Our consultant team is led by Wendel, in partnership with Alta Planning + Design, Mark Fenton, Make Communities, and Highland Planning.
WHAT IS A WALKABILITY AUDIT?
In case you don't know, a walkability audit is an evaluation of the walking environment, used to identify concerns for pedestrians related to safety, access, comfort, and convenience. The audit convenes key community stakeholders in day-long discussion to evaluate a public corridor. A key element is that while the groups include outside facilitators, the local stakeholders are leader in the process: they identify the corridor, evaluate the issues and opportunities, and develop key recommendations.
If you want to learn more, FHWA has a great resource page about walkability audits here.
WHY WALKABILITY MATTERS
In Avon and Bergen, the Mark Fenton was our guide. This was my first experience working with Mark. He is smart, adept, and passionate. He is considered to be a national expert, but grew up in Brockport and has a strong affinity for Western New York. His motivation for promoting walkability is health. In his introductory presentation to audit participants, he led us through his rationale for devoting his life to the development of walkability communities:
- Obesity is causing serious and expensive national health problems;
- A contributing factor to obesity and the health problems it creates is lack of exercise;
- Our lack of exercise is directly related to our built environment and our reliance on cars;
- Creating more walkable communities would improve our nation's health.
Pretty simple, really. One half hour of exercise per day would provide all the health benefits that adults need to avoid heart disease and diabetes. But that's not happening. However, if we can adapt our built environments to make walking safer and more enjoyable, we can make it easier for people to gain that 30 minutes of exercise by walking to do things they normally use their car to do, such as pick up groceries, visit the library or drop their kids off at school.
Highland Planning's role in this project is to organize each of the ten communities and make sure that all the logistics are in place. One of the most important logistical aspects to walkability audit is making sure the right people are invited to participate. Participants should be a cross section of a community, and should include representatives from schools, police, government, Department of Public Works, state DOTs, economic development, City Council, county government, and residents.
OVERVIEW OF THE DAY
Our half-day agenda for each of walkability audits includes:
- A one hour presentation describing the tools available to create more walkable, bicycle-friendly settings.
- A one hour walking audit. Ideally entire group walks an area of concern, or an area considered for potential improvement.
- Small group discussion about potential improvements to the focus area.
- Presentations from small groups, discussion, next steps, and wrap-up.
One of our first audits took place in November in Avon. I LOVE Avon. Great people, historic homes, lots of green space. You can tell it's a strong community as soon as you arrive. We had a cold, but sunny day.
Canandaigua's downtown is very walkable - wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and even flashing pedestrian crossing signals. Just south of downtown, Route 5/20 creates a huge barrier to the lake. The city recently approved a $100 million lakefront development, so creating better connections between the lake and the downtown is one of their priorities right now.
Justin Booth was our guide in Canandaigua and Geneva. Please note the amazing rainbow that created the perfect backdrop for this side-of-the-road discussion in Canandaigua. I am sure he was saying something prophetic here.
Finally, last Thursday, we were in Geneva. Geneva has a lot of great things going on. Historic architecture, a strong and growing network of neighborhood leadership, eclectic small businesses filling the downtown, and several large redevelopment projects underway.
Our first audit was cancelled because of Snowvember; Justin couldn't get out of Buffalo. Last week, we arrived at the tail end of another storm, which left about a foot of snow. But we're tough Western New Yorkers, so that didn't stop us. The snow gave us a lot of interesting learning opportunities, especially because one of our participants was in a wheelchair. Meredith doesn't look very happy here, but I honestly didn't hear her complain once.
To date, we have about 60 people participate in the four audits. Each community developed a list of programs, projects and policies that could improve walkability. What was most interesting to me is that the audits took place during one single day, so these recommendations will represent a snapshot of ideas within the continuum of these ever-changing communities.
This is a great project, and I'm looking forward to the next six audits in the spring. I'm also looking forward to seeing which recommendations are progressed after the audits are completed.