Want a walkable community? Start with the main drag

 

At first glance, I suppose nothing appears to be amiss with the scene in this photograph. It’s Main Ave., the primary business and tourist district of Durango, Colorado. But it could be any number of mid-sized Western towns.

Durango, Colorado's Main Avenue looks like a lot of Western towns' main drags. While it's not hostile to pedestrians and bikers, it's also not as friendly as it could be. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

The town has done an admirable job retaining its historic integrity and aesthetics of the architecture and has managed to mitigate the threats from the big-box stores that have metastasized on the town’s fringe. Yes, Main Ave. lost its hardware store, furniture stores, Woolworths and a couple of pharmacies to high-end restaurants, tacky T-shirt shops and cheesy galleries, but “real” businesses, aimed toward locals, remain. Empty storefronts don’t stay vacant for long, despite high rents, and the seven-block stretch is usually pretty vibrant. Many of the buildings have residential or office spaces in the upper stories. Every 20 minutes the bus comes by, ferrying passengers to and from the other end of town for free.

To a degree, it’s the type of mixed-use downtown that many communities are , as our love affair with the suburbs and the exurbs, the McMansions, culs-de-sac and ranchettes, fades. But look a bit closer and you’ll see that even Durango, with its passion for bicycles and outdoor recreation, still has a long ways to go.

Demographers tell us that both Millennials and Baby Boomers are bailing on the ‘burbs, giving up their interminable commutes, and heading for the bike-able, walkable urban cores. It represents a shift in the way we relate to each other and our communities as a whole: We are ready to give up being ensconced in backyard or behind the wheel, and get out into the public spaces to interact with others. The trend not only holds for urban areas, but also for , where real estate values generally decrease as one moves away from the city center.

A city government has a variety of tools it can use to promote bike- and walk-ability: It can give incentives for infill development, relax height limitations in downtown areas to encourage density, and change zoning rules to allow for more mixed-use neighborhoods. But the most powerful tool is the way : streets, highways, bike paths, sidewalks, light rail and the like. Just as roads can influence where and how development happens, they can also change the shape of a community. Here in Durango, the quality of life jumped noticeably after the riverside bike/foot path was all linked up several years ago. When the city revamped a rough and nasty artery by adding big sidewalks, generous bike lanes, a roundabout and tree-filled medians, it not only made for a safer and more pleasant drive/bike/walk along the route, but also upped the desirability of the neighborhoods alongside it.

It's time to extend the courtesy to the heart of the city, its downtown.

Look back at the photo above. That stretch of road isn’t exactly hostile towards pedestrians and cyclists in the way that much of America’s roadways are — the speed limit is low, and a lot of traffic lights keep motorists in check, so it’s a safer bet than many of Durango’s other streets. Still, it’s also not that friendly. Though it’s not a major artery — no one drives Main Ave. to get anywhere quickly anymore — it retains its arterial design: Automobiles are given four lanes, six if you count the parking zones; bicyclists have no dedicated path of travel, since the sidewalks are off-limits, forcing them to ride closely to parallel-parked cars, risking getting doored; pedestrians are herded onto sidewalks that are wide enough to walk on, but little more.

This design, or lack thereof, has virtually eliminated public gathering spaces in the town’s core. Stop on the sidewalk to talk to someone and you’ll impede the flow of traffic. In order to keep foot traffic flowing, restaurants and such are prohibited from blocking the sidewalk with tables and chairs, so sidewalk cafes are virtually nonexistent. Want to take a break and sit down in the shade of a tree and watch people wend their way down the street? Forget it. The whole streetscape was made for movement, for funneling people from one place to another. We feel as though we are trying to reach some destination, though really, we’re already there — the downtown district, the core of commerce, is and should be the destination, not a thoroughfare.

Really, this seven-block stretch of the main drag is useless as a street. It’s a car-clogged road to nowhere. It would better serve residents, visitors and businesses if it weren’t a street at all, but a pedestrian mall, a la Pearl Street in Boulder. But that’s a big leap. A middle way, however, can be found in an unexpected place: Grand Junction, Colorado.

Grand Junction is hardly known for its walkability, or even livability. It’s a sprawling, automobile-loving, fossil fuel boomtown. Its downtown somewhat resembles Durango’s, with nice historic buildings and a Main Street once wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic. Decades ago, energy-boom-fueled sprawl started sucking the life out of downtown, and Main Street lost its arterial status, so city leaders reacted by redesigning the road to make the area more desirable. First, they reduced the street from four to two lanes, making it meander slightly to slow folks down. Then they filled up all that extra space with bigger sidewalks, little public seating spaces, patios for restaurants, trees, benches and sculptures. More recently, they extended the concept to another street that runs parallel to Main. Rather than feeling as if they’re being pushed through the space, motorists and pedestrians alike feel as if they’ve arrived at their destination.

Durango's Main Avenue, top, is designed to move people from one place to another, while Grand Junction's Main Street, bottom, is set up to be a destination -- a place to linger. Photos: Google Maps.

Rebuilding a town’s main drag is a huge, expensive project, and would surely ruffle a few feathers. But for Durango and all the towns in the West that are increasingly relying on “quality of life” to drive their economies, it’s the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at NewTowncarShare News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets .

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Join the publisher, editors, writers and staff of NewTowncarShare for the annual Holiday Open House. Refreshments, food, door prizes and merriment. Thursday, December 6,...
  • 5 acres, views, utilities to lot line includes paid water tap, great for passive solar design, covenants and NO HOA. Listed by Beckie at Keller...
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society (NAFWS) is seeking qualified applicants to fill a vacant Executive Director position in Denver, CO. The position serves...
  • The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success using the power of the...
  • 383 Acres with trails, private road, trees, stream and fabulous views. Earth Sheltered, passive solar home provides 2785 sf of comfort and a "top of...
  • certified, 51 acres, small cottage, outbuildings, equipment and tools. Contact: [email protected]
  • 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River, NM. MLS #101605. Contact [email protected]
  • of mountains, 22+ acres. Close to Arroyo Seco and the Taos Ski Valley, NM. MLS #102585, [email protected]
  • 2br-2ba, acreage. Birders, writers. 1000.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • The Wilderness Society is currently recruiting for a Communications Manager for our Northwest Region. This position can be located in Seattle or Oakland. For more...
  • 1912 Orchard House completely rebuilt 2002. 4000 sq ft home and private guest cottage on .53 acres. Reclaimed maple and Doug Fir. Two garages. CathyMooney.com,...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) seeks a new Executive Director to guide this dynamic national advocacy, watchdog, and service organization. The successful candidate requires...
  • The California Program Manager will work closely with California-based program staff and other NFF staff to provide project management and program development support. The incumbent...
  • Sierra Club is looking for a community organizer who can help us protect grizzly bears and other wildlife species in the Northern Rockies region. This...
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is hiring a full-time Restoration Program Coordinator based in Escalante, Utah. gsenm.org
  • 7.58 Acres in Delta County for $198,000. and a contiguous 25 acre parcel of land zoned agricultural is available in Montrose county for an additional...
  • in Moab, UT start in Spring. Naturalist, River Guides, Camp Cooks, Internships available. Details at cfimoab.org/employment.