Building healthy communities

Too many towns have turned into drive-thru’s, rather than destinations.

That’s the general gist of a recent symposium, “Growing Healthy Communities,” organized by the Clark County Community Planning and Clark County Public Health departments, and presented by Dan Burden from the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.

“For nearly 80 years we’ve been overbuilding communities for cars,” said Burden. “We forgot communities are for people.”

Brendon Haggerty, program coordinator for Clark County Public Health and symposium attendee, said the event was part of a kickoff to develop a health element for the county’s comprehensive growth management plan, to be incorporated in the next plan update in 2014.

Health is a fundamental part of development, according to Oliver Orjiako, director of Clark County Community Planning Department. For example, he said if the design promotes healthy activities such as biking and walking, the risk of obesity can be reduced.

“Our goal is to return to traditional neighborhoods and design developments that value a mix of uses,” said Orjiako.

Sharon Pesut, executive director of Community Choices, said that the health element was critical in tying all the elements of the comprehensive growth management plan together, by engaging all the players – real estate experts, developers, zoning decision makers and even lenders.

Robert Maul, community development director for the city of Battle Ground, said “it’s nice that the county is trying to get a global perspective on this. Every jurisdiction has differences, so it can help to have a county-wide vision.”

According to Burden, a healthier, walkable community is characterized by several key components:

•    A mix of land uses and designations within a five-minute walk of each other

•    Street, architecture, and landscape designs that create a sense of social cohesion instead of a sense of distance and impersonality

•    Affordable workforce housing integrated into the community

For example, walkable street design includes narrower streets, with on-street parking and wider sidewalks that promote a promenade feeling. How the buildings are accessed is also important. Instead of an ocean of parking between the street and the building, walkable designs move the building closer to the street, with parking in back. Trees, hanging baskets and other landscape features can make people want to come to and linger in an area.

However, according to Burden, these design elements are useless if a community adheres to the mutually exclusive approach to residential, commercial and industrial zoning.

“Mixed-use is a critical component,” said Burden. “You can build sidewalks and crossings, but if they don’t have interesting places to go to [or places to live], it won’t work.”

Therefore, before developers can design and build such communities, some changes to codes and zoning categories are required.

Alistaire Clary, director of Southwest Washington operations for the engineering consulting firm Maul Foster & Alongi, said “we’re happy to design anything the developers want – but it comes down to the codes we need to follow.”

Clary explained that municipal codes often stipulate that streets be a certain number of feet wide and designed for specific speeds – in direct conflict with walkable, livable design principles.

“It needs to start with planning by municipalities and a comprehensive county plan,” she said.

In Hazel Dell, explained Clary, they are already seeing some progress in code revisions and newer developments in that area, such as on 78th Street. Battle Ground, too, is working hard at making walkable, livable, healthy communities a reality, according to Maul.

“We have implemented a number of the ideas that were talked about at the symposium. We’re ahead of a lot of communities in that respect,” he said.

As examples, Maul cited adding mixed-use zoning to the city’s comprehensive plan, connecting trails and parks, and modifying residential neighborhood designs to include narrower roads, bringing front porches closer together and moving garages to the back of properties.

Though Maul admitted that retrofitting existing communities with livable, walkable design elements can be challenging in terms of logistics and funding, he said that infrastructure costs for new development didn’t change much by incorporating walkability and social cohesion. Clary agreed, saying that it didn’t matter cost-wise whether the parking lot was in front and the building was in back, or vice versa.

In addition, explained Clary, the intrinsic value of property that is livable, workable, and walkable will quickly recoup costs through the profitability of businesses located in the area. Burden added that communities supporting walkable designs will attract the most new developers because these areas will offer higher return on investment.

“People want to know more people, and drive less,” said Burden.

With his eye on the city of Vancouver, Burden said certain areas, such as Fort Vancouver and the Clark College campus, are good examples of how traffic-calming design and pedestrian-friendly crossings can be used to enhance the walkability of an area. Haggerty, too, said the city has made good progress toward implementing walkable, livable community concepts, such as at Esther Short Park and Uptown Village, which feature well-connected street grids, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly street crossings with a mix of destinations that are close together. However all agree that much work remains to be done.

“We are already good,” said Pesut, “but we could be great.”

Walkability in Ridgefield

According to Christy Osborn, a planner at the Vancouver office of engineering consulting firm Maul Foster & Alongi, the City of Ridgefield and the Port of Ridgefield received a $100,000 integrated planning grant in 2010 from the Washington State Department of Ecology, which they are using to implement a walkable, livable, healthier community.

Osborn said the project included incorporating new neighborhood commercial zoning into the city’s comprehensive plan, redeveloping the port’s waterfront property, implementing multi-modal trail connections and integrating the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge into the downtown area through park and trail development.

“Over the last year they have put together an action plan with an emphasis on pedestrian connections,” said Osborn. “They are putting a framework in place for what the community wants to see – a place where they can live and work with nodes of neighborhood commercial and connections with job growth areas.”

For More Information

Visit the following websites for more information about planning for and designing communities that foster a sense of health, neighborhood and place: – The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute (website no longer active as of 7/3/2018) – Walkable Communities – Sightline Institute  (Pacific Northwest specific) – Smart Growth America – Partners for Livable Communities – Transportation for America – The Victoria Transport Policy Institute