Jan 9, 2013
Emily McMackin
Emily McMackin
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Paving Prosperity: Walkable Downtowns Pay Dividends for Sprawling Communities

Quality of Life: Dusk Falls on Sioux Falls

How much difference can a street make? In the town of Lancaster, Calif., it’s making a big one — creating jobs, boosting revenue, improving safety and raising the value of downtown housing. Cutting through the heart of its downtown district, the new walkable Lancaster Boulevard is bringing investment, business and life back to this southern California city that sits about 70 miles outside of Los Angeles.

It wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, Lancaster’s historic downtown was teetering on the brink of decline, a victim of urban sprawl. As businesses and big box retailers migrated to commercial centers and strip malls along the Antelope Valley Freeway, downtown became abandoned, surrounded by deteriorating buildings, plummeting property values and rising crime.

Despite the city’s fast-growing population, major employers like Lockheed Martin and other aerospace and defense firms began to pull up stakes and take their business elsewhere. So Lancaster took action.

In 2008, the city adopted a form-based zoning code for its downtown corridor that encouraged mixed use of buildings and a walkable streetscape (see photos of the transformation here). It also hired an architecture firm to redesign the boulevard.

The city added wider sidewalks and crosswalks, awnings, shade trees, street lamps, gateways, arcades, outdoor dining areas and public art to make the boulevard more functional and aesthetically pleasing for pedestrians. Since then, downtown has attracted nearly 50 new businesses, 800 new jobs, 800 new and renovated homes, and $273 million in economic output. Property values have risen by 10 percent and traffic collisions have decreased by half. Most importantly, people are coming downtown to shop, dine and congregate.

The boulevard project, which recently won EPA’s top award for smart growth, has also made the community greener, with its reuse of infrastructure and pedestrian-friendly streets that shorten driving distances and reduce emissions from car travel.

Lancaster isn’t the only city reaping the economic benefits of walkability. In Waco, TX, a downtown-connected riverwalk along the Brazos River is spurring the development of riverfront restaurants, shops and residential lofts and helping the city retain and attract talent. Chattanooga, TN continues to get noticed for the transformation of its riverwalk and its pedestrian-friendly trails and parks. Dalton, Ga. is constructing a $10 million greenway to bring interest and investment back to its downtown. And both Wichita, KS and Columbia, TN have kicked off plans to develop pedestrian-friendly boulevards of their own.

According to economist Richard Florida, walkable cities, downtowns and neighborhoods like these will be a hallmark of prosperous cities in the future. Do you agree? What impact do you see walkability having on economic growth? Please share your thoughts below.

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