FEATURE — I heard a rabbi say recently, “In community, we heal.” He was speaking about how to heal from the pandemic with the added burden of the riots in our cities. As we separate more and more, politically, religiously and in neighborhoods not conducive to companionship, new ideas are emerging about how to regain a better sense of community, of oneness. We could call this nostalgia for the future.
Did you have a front porch as a kid? Did you ride your bike to a friend’s house? Could you walk or bike to the store, the church, your doctor? As suburbs grew, as urban sprawl became common, as the shopping mall and big box store appeared, did the sense of community disappear. Unless you were raised on a large farm or ranch, the answer to those questions is probably yes.
As cities grow, the pull and tug between what was and what can be begins to create some stress. There are those who think about how to preserve what is good while looking to the future. One of those organizations is Transportation for American, which published a report called The Congestion Con. It states, “In an expensive effort to curb congestion in urban regions, we have overwhelmingly prioritized one strategy: We have spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars widening and building new highways […] Yet this strategy has utterly failed to ‘solve’ congestion.” Ideas to address this issue are circulating in Washington County, Utah and its largest metropolitan area, St. George. City and county leaders and residents are coming together in innovative ways to go back without going backward. But what does it mean to go back?
Change can be difficult when an area grows as quickly as Washington County in the last decade, growth that appears will continue. There seems to always be a need for more services, more roads, more housing, more schools. That can put pressure on the wonderful bucolic and uncongested lifestyle of residents who have lived in the area for a long time. There are solutions and one lifestyle need not push out the other.
One group that has been studying this for a long time is the Southern Utah Bicycle Alliance because it looks at “active transportation” as a way to alleviate congestion but also to allow citizens to perform daily activities both without using a car and in their own neighborhoods. This way of living has become particularly noticeable during the recent pandemic lockdown. Having to travel to big box stores and wait in line to be allowed in has been frustrating. What if we could go back to small commercial areas with walkable streets, safe bike lanes for adults and children. Probably most citizens (not raised on a ranch or a farm) can remember that kind of neighborhood. Where does that start?
“These changes start with public policy,” said Ryan Gurr, the owner of Red Rock Bicycle in St. George. “You won’t get people to ride bikes or let their children ride a bike to school unless they feel it is safe; that bike lanes are wide enough and separated enough from traffic to do so. We can build better neighborhoods with easier connectivity. The very first step is to change the narrative of city planners and public works officials so they adopt a mission statement focused on moving people instead of moving cars.”
He makes the point that this is not about taking anything away from anyone, but rather adding choices, opportunities, and in the end, community. He refers to it as a nostalgia for the future – a neighborhood with neighborhood stores, safe streets to walk and ride bikes and communicate with our neighbors.
Gurr feels strongly that you do not ‘educate’ or force these ideas on residents. Rather you lower the barrier to entry, and St. George City Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin agrees.
“There is a whole network of people when it comes to planning a city – land planners, infrastructure planners, engineers in charge of street planning. They tend to look at the street planning in a silo. Water infrastructure is another silo. Planning sometimes doesn’t coordinate in a way that we wind up with a holistic product at the end based on human interaction, human movement and just our basic humanity.”
She cited Charles Marohn of Strongtowns.org, an international movement dedicated to making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resilient. Marohn put forth the concept of the ‘stroad,’ his acronym for combining roads and streets. Larkin noted that when we give roads and streets the same meaning and purpose, we wind up with roads that can get us from point A to point B, but they actually get in the way of us building a community.
“Roads are highways. Roads are spaces of pavement to get people from place to place with speed and efficiency. A street is a connector within a community that provides human interaction. So a street is a place where people come out and they meet their neighbors and they go to the coffee shop and walk to the park and kids do pick-up basketball games and ride bicycles and can do all these things on a street at a low level of speed and a high level of interaction. But too often in the United States, we have tried to have our roads perform both these functions. We can change this, however, with a change in mission by city planners.”
SUBA’s local goal is to encourage Washington County cities to adopt a ‘complete streets’ policy and work with local city governments toward policies that would require most streets to have options for walking, biking or driving. This allows residents to choose among transportation methods, including walking and biking. The group feels this should be incorporated into all city planning for streets.
Larkin gave the example of all the wonderful biking and walking trails that have been created in Washington County and St. George particularly. She says there was a lot of pushback at first, but once they were built and people started using them and enjoying them, they were hooked.
“You have to create the opportunity and then people will understand the value,” she said.
One example of this kind of thinking is the new Desert Color Community being developed out toward the St. George airport. The developers started out by thinking, ‘What does an ideal community look like for Southern Utah?’ and decided it was open but connected with trails that link neighborhoods to parks, schools, commercial areas, health care and education. Each home, no matter what size or type, is required to have a front porch.
“We keep building roads, and as the roads get filled up, we keep expanding the roads and people have to go further and further just to do ordinary daily activities,” Mitch Dansie, general manager of Desert Color, said. “We want Desert Color to be a community where every home feels welcoming and where you can sit on your front porch and talk with your neighbors and intact with them. The concept is you’re not tucked away behind walls. There’s a lot of value in that.”
“Everyone complains about congestion as they sit in traffic in their cars. But they are the congestion. To fix that we have to think differently. It’s about connecting your community and creating as many options for interaction and movement as possible. At the end of the day, that’s what creates connectivity and ultimately that’s what creates personal freedom,” Gurr added.
Written by DELLA LOWE, Southern Utah Bicycle Alliance.
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