This article was originally published in March 2014 on the Community Builders Website by Jillian Sutherland, a project manager with the Sonoran Institute. Motivated by the idea that shaping smarter transportation systems is an essential step in building stronger and more prosperous communities, we recently partnered with the Sonoran Institute to develop and administer the exciting New Mobility West (NMW) initiative. This program provides selected communities throughout the Rocky Mountain West region with critical tools and resources for improving their downtown transportation systems. If you are within this region, you can apply for free technical assistance from NMW here by December 5th, 2014.
Communities of any size can create celebrated public spaces. I know it’s true because I’ve seen it first hand – this month I had the pleasure of participating in the recent Smart Growth Tour put on by the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. During this tour, I got to explore some of Colorado’s Front Range communities that have made major investments to become more walkable and livable.
You say: “But this tour took place on the Front Range! Weren’t the communities you visited much more metropolitan than most of the Intermountain West? What works there would never work here…”
I will admit that I’ve thought the same thing from time to time. After this tour, however, I’ve come away believing that any community, no matter the size, can make positive changes to become more comfortable, walkable places. So, I challenge you to put aside your bias and see for yourself.
Walkability isn’t a rural versus urban issue – wherever vehicle speeds are high, wherever we don’t see other people walking, wherever the buildings all look the same – there is a starkness that detracts from the community. This can happen anywhere. And no matter how small your community, you can afford to address the problem. In fact, you can’t afford not to.
It is true that larger communities often have greater financial resources than smaller communities to mitigate these challenges, but there still are appropriate solutions for each and every community. I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite examples from the recent tour: Golden, Colorado – Population: 19,186.
If you’re like I was, then you probably think Golden, Colorado is either a resort community or a suburb of Denver. It’s actually neither. A mountain community with its own vibrant, local economy, Golden, Colorado has made a commitment to creating places that are designed for people – not cars. And their economy has benefited greatly from this commitment.
Golden understands that when a place is well-designed, it accommodates bikes, pedestrians and cars, all without allowing cars to dominate the environment. This happens when cars are moving at speeds safe for the area, and when traffic is distributed through a network of streets. It seems obvious, but when streets aren’t friendly for walking, people avoid walking – and window shopping as well.
In 1989, before streetscape improvements were in place, this reality was evidenced by a high vacancy rate (35 percent) in Golden’s downtown shops. Folks didn’t want to stroll and shop, because it wasn’t a comfortable environment for it. Today, streets are lined with trees and on-street parking (parked cars offer a useful buffer between people who are walking and cars that are moving), making it a most pleasant place to spend an afternoon. In fact, within just two years of the streetscape project’s completion, the retail vacancy rate dropped below 5 percent and has stayed that way ever since. Additionally, their sales tax revenues did not see the huge plunge many Colorado communities experienced during the recent recession.
The turning point for the change was the establishment of an urban renewal authority (URA), a statutory tool in Colorado that is used by municipalities to make improvements within a designated area of the community. The local governing body establishes the URA, and new tax revenues resulting from future taxable improvements are reinvested in the area for purposes of public benefit.
Over the years, the Golden Urban Renewal Authority has been able to invest over $13 million in downtown renewal, which has spurred a huge amount of private investment as well.
Here’s the impressive part: when they began, their population was a little less than 13,000. This small town was able to make a huge difference. The downtown has been completely transformed through this process, and has truly become a destination. But, it remains a small mountain town, full of character and charm. Golden’s story demonstrates how great community planning results in economic resilience and success – even in rural places.
Jillian Sutherland is a project manager with the Sonoran Institute. She helps develop training programs for communities and regions interested in linking their community and economic development efforts, and also assists communities with exploring opportunities for infill and redevelopment.