Great Places Need Complete Streets

How do you create sustainable, livable communities?

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How do you create sustainable, livable communities?

When 1,000 planners, engineers, advocates, civic leaders, government officials, public health professionals, architects and landscape architects gathered in Long Beach, CA for Pro Walk/ Pro Bike 2012: Pro Place, many could have told you that prominent features of all sustainable communities are “complete streets.”

Though current use of the term only dates back to 2003, the concept of complete streets finds its roots in the late 1960s in response to car-dominated city planning. As major cities began or contemplated bulldozing homes for highways a resistance was born.

The result was the re-imagining of what streets mean to the communities they serve. Complete streets are ones that will provide safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists of all ages and abilities. Simply put, complete streets are for everyone, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition.

As you look around your own city you’re likely to find the very opposite of complete streets. When designed with the sole function of moving as many cars as possible, so-called “incomplete streets” create barriers and limit choices by making walking, bicycling, and taking public transportation inconvenient, unattractive, and, in many cases, very dangerous.

Complete streets policies, now adopted in 352 regional and local jurisdictions in the US, are helping communities determine how their streets can provide access for all users. Unlike building wider roads and longer highways the changes required to make complete streets are often low cost, fast to implement and offer big benefits for all users. These changes, also referred to as “road diets,” include narrowed lane widths, lowered and enforced speed limits, adding roadside trees, providing cycling lanes and improving access to public transit. Successful complete streets reduce congestion by allowing people to make the most practical transportation choices to them.

Yet, complete streets are just part of the solution. Complete streets, shaped by city planners, help make public roads safer and more welcoming, but a second concept, known as “Placemaking,” is what helps build strong communities. According to Project for Public Spaces (PPS), Placemaking is a process empowering people to create sustainable, livable communities. When residents, as opposed to developers and governments, are allowed early input into what businesses, parks, transit and housing they want, the result can often help a community become a more desirable place where people want to live, work and simply be.

“Places” as defined by Placemaking share four key qualities: they are accessible to all ages and abilities, they welcome and engage people in activities, they are comfortable with a positive image and they promote social interactions.

PPS explained, “Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and well being.”

John Norquist, President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism and Pro Walk/ Pro Bike keynote speaker, told PPS, “You can’t have a prosperous neighborhood where people can engage in social interaction and converse if they have to drive everywhere.” By encouraging and supporting biking and walking, according to Norquist, you’ll increase “social interaction, social equity and a high performing real estate market,” all integral to making places where people want to be.

“If you’re going to add infrastructure to the city, you have to add to its value,” said Norquist. When it comes to encouraging decision makers to include cycling in complete streets and Placemaking projects, Norquist added, “Bicycling is an important catalyst to move communities toward an urbanism that is ecologically sound and economically productive.”

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