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Bike Breakthrough: Connecting Neighborhoods with Low-Stress Routes

mother-kids 

Photo by Planetgordon

For me, a good bike ride is both relaxing and stimulating — a chance to revel in the passing scenery as I feel the wind blow across my face. But I never expected to experience this in New York City. Navigating Brooklyn and a bit of Manhattan on two wheels for the first time was a sublime surprise. Instead of constantly peering over my shoulder fearful of cars speeding toward me (as I expected), I actually savored the street life all around while pedaling through town.

What made this ride so pleasurable and surprising is a well-connected grid of safe and comfortable bike routes featuring protected bike lanes on busy avenues and painted lanes on quieter streets. Built over the last decade as part of a methodical plan to improve biking in New York,  this network explains Brooklyn’s doubling of bike commuters over just five years, 2009-2014.

Those 10,000 new bike-commuting Brooklynites, not to mention the tens of thousands of others in the borough who now bike for shorter errands and social trips, are more than a trend.

They're a model.

“The next big idea for biking in the U.S. is building complete, connected networks of comfortable places to ride,” says Martha Roskowski, vice president of local innovation for the national bicycling advocacy coalition PeopleForBikes. “Most communities have bits and pieces of good bike routes. Maybe a nice pathway along the river, some quiet side streets, perhaps a few good bike lanes. But they’re pretty disconnected in most places, so people still don’t feel safe on bikes.

“When cities link bikeways together, it’s transformative,” she says.  “You see a lot more people on bikes, and more women and kids, not just those who are brave or who have special biking skills.”

For New York City, the payoff has been huge: new bike commuters in Brooklyn alone over five years are enough to jam 50 subway cars or pack the Brooklyn Bridge with autos for an hour straight.

Taking the Stress Out of Biking

This new focus on filling in missing bikeway links — and, therefore, on the people who aren't currently biking — has been spreading across the country.

“It’s really exciting for us to be knitting a bicycle network together to create more options for people of all ages and abilities to get to work, school or stores,” explains Laura Dierenfield, active transportation program manager in Austin, Texas. “Our planning strategy is less about what we can do for bicycling, but what bicycling can do for a safer, more affordable and more sustainable Austin.”

“Increasingly, people are stepping up and saying, ‘I never ride a bike — but my kids do, or my neighbors do, or the people who work for me do, and I want them to be safe,’” says Roskowski. “We hear from business leaders who want their communities to be more attractive to employers and visitors. We work with neighborhood leaders who see biking’s potential as low-cost transportation and a good way for kids to get to the park.”

Roskowski's group PeopleForBikes recently launched what it calls the Big Jump Project to help ten neighborhoods around the US show what’s possible when people on bikes experience the same level of comfort and ease that drivers have long enjoyed on American streets. The idea is that creating and promoting less stressful networks will trigger sizable increases in bicycling in these neighborhoods over the next three years, and offer practical models for cities everywhere to do the same.

Austin is home to one of the 10 Big Jump neighborhoods. Another is in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Our goal is to make our bike system more accessible for people, a low-stress network that is family-friendly,” adds Tessa Greegor, manager for the bike program in Fort Collins.

To accompany the Big Jump, PeopleForBikes and the planning and engineering firm Toole Design Group have teamed up to create a new procedure, called the Bicycle Network Analysis  that looks at the location, connectivity and quality of any city's biking network to measure its strength.

This information will help answer many of the key questions about the future of biking. Which cities have the best networks? Which cities' long-term plans have the most potential? And, most importantly, if a city wants the biggest biking boom for its buck, which missing links should be its top priorities?

"Take a typical suburban residential neighborhood as an example," said Spencer Gardner, a planner for Toole Design Group who co-created the measurement tool. "Most of it is actually pretty comfortable for biking. But generally there are a few locations in the road network that are really important — meaning that they make connections possible from one place to another — that tend not to be very comfortable for biking.

"Those couple miles of arterial roads are the most important piece of the network for making it possible for people to bike around your city," Gardner said.

A Giant Leap for Communities

Biking experts agree that building complete networks (by closing missing links) and measuring them (with tools like the Bike Network Analysis) is essential. But they also agree it's not enough. After a century of building cities around cars, people need to be exposed to the idea that bikes can also be a practical, pleasant transportation way to get around.

“What drives people to bike is how well the bike network is integrated into the life of the community,” says Kyle Wagenschutz, who manages the Big Jump project for PeopleForBikes.  “Our work is not just to put in bike lanes, but to help transform local landscapes by linking bikes to community-driven initiatives and programs that support more vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods.”

Prospects for  better biking across America look promising to Gil Peñalosa — a globe-trotting advocate for creating communities that work for people of all ages — based on what he saw happen in Seville, Spain.  “Like in the US, people there said ‘we will never bike because we love our cars too much’. But they went from 0.6 percent of trips by bike to almost seven percent in three years by building a connected grid of 100 miles of protected bike lanes.”

Turns out it was not love of cars (or even the city’s scorching summer temperatures) that prevented people from biking, Peñalosa says. It was “poor connectivity in the street grid for cyclists. If people have safe, easy access from their house to where they want go safely, they will ride.”

Peñalosa also points to Bogotá, Colombia — where he was parks commissioner in the 1990s and his brother Enrique is now mayor — which boasts one of the world’s most extensive bike networks with 250 miles of protected bikeways and another 250 miles under construction over the next three years. Around 400,000 bike trips are made around the city each day, significantly increasing traffic capacity on the city's streets.

Closer to home, Calgary, Canada, offers a shining example of how connected bike networks can bring change fast — even in a sprawling city in a province whose oil and gas industry sometimes earns it the title “Texas of the North.” In 2014, the city council narrowly approved plans to create a 4-mile network of protected bike lanes on four downtown streets all at once.  

Within three months, bicycling on those streets doubled. Within a year, overall bicycle trips downtown soared 40 percent. City data found that the ratio of women biking downtown rose eight percentage points, while the number of people biking illegally on the sidewalks fell 16 percent. Delays for people driving was no more than 90 seconds, even during rush hour. A year after the network was built, two-thirds of all city residents supported it, and the city council voted 10-4 in December 2016 to make the changes permanent.

“As we look at the data, more people are cycling, we’ve lowered the percentage of injury collisions throughout the core, and we’ve had pretty minimal impact on automobile traffic, so I’m quite pleased,” announced Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who noted he himself does not ride a bike.

Last fall Edmonton — Calgary’s rival in NHL hockey and many other things — launched a similar project for its own downtown.

The Building Blocks of Great Biking

Key elements for creating low-stress bicycle networks are:

• Protected Bike Lanes — The number of bike lanes where riders are physically separated from motor vehicles has skyrocketed in the US since 2009. There are more than 400 today in 82 cities across 34 states, with more being built all the time. Chicago alone has built 32 projects, and protected bike lanes are also appearing in suburbs like Hillsboro, Oregon, which features three routes, and smaller communities like Springdale, Arkansas, with two.

Numerous studies document that protected bike lanes increase the rate of bicycling by an average of 75 percent, reduce bicycle and pedestrian injuries, relieve stress on the streets for drivers  and spur economic growth in the neighborhoods where they are constructed. They generally are built along busy arterial streets, giving people safer access to businesses and other popular destinations.

• Neighborhood Bikeways — Also known as "neighborhood greenways" or “bicycle boulevards,” these are low-speed side streets where biking and walking are given priority over driving through a series of design, engineering and landscaping measures that calm motor vehicles and discourage non-local auto traffic on these streets.

Vancouver, British Columbia now sports more than 20 neighborhood bikeways, part of a 100-mile network that will eventually reach within a ten-minute bike ride of every resident. Portland, Oregon has built more than 70 miles so far, and Austin and Tucson are working on extensive networks of their own. Seattle took a step in this direction by lowering speed limits to 20 miles per hour on 2400 miles of residential streets across the city.  

• Shared-Use Paths — These are off-road paths, such as rail trails and waterfront parkways, that are increasingly common for recreational riding across the country. Dayton, Ohio, for instance, boasts more than 330 miles of paved bike paths. Fayetteville, Arkansas, spends $1.5 million each year — 6 percent of its entire capital budget — to continually expand its 40-mile trail network. These trails play an important role for transportation, too, especially when they are well-linked to protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways.

•Safer Intersections — Most bike/car crashes happen where streets meet. Intersections can be made safer for biking, walking and driving with innovations such as special bike signals (which often give bikers a few seconds' head start so turning drivers notice them) and green painted bike lanes (which remind everyone that the intersection is shared space). At particularly dangerous crossings, another solution is to build underpasses that allow bikes to skip the intersection altogether, which Fort Collins is doing as part of its master plan to triple bikes on the streets by 2020.   

Salt Lake City, Austin and Davis, California (where bikes make up 20 percent of local traffic) have recently built the nation’s first protected intersections, which make a few  design tweaks that rearrange traffic flow so people on bikes and in cars don't have to look over their shoulders for one another.

father-daughter

Photo by Planetgordon

New York on Two Wheels

“If I make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” goes the old song “New York, New York.” And this is true for bicycling too.

America’s biggest, most boisterous and densely settled city shows the important role bikes can play in 21st century life.  On a typical day, close to a half-million bike rides are taken around the city, and more than 775,000 New Yorkers cycle regularly. The number of people riding bikes daily rose 80 percent from 2010 to 2015 — the period when major bike improvements began appearing on the streets. The city’s growing network of connected bike routes accounts for these surprising numbers.

Parts of Brooklyn offer a glimpse of what biking could feel like in the future.  Never once did I feel threatened by traffic throughout my three-hour ride in and around Brooklyn — which covered the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Williamsburg, the green expanses of  Prospect Park, the old Navy Yard, into Manhattan on the Williamsburg bridge, around the Lower East Side and Chinatown, back over the Manhattan Bridge (where we ran into a bike traffic jam) then on to DUMBO, downtown Brooklyn and Boerum Hill.

“Some of the sense of security comes from the neighborhood itself,” explained my tour guide Jon Orcutt, former policy director of the New York City Department of Transportation and now advocacy director at TransitCenter.  “The network of bike lanes has made drivers in this part of Brooklyn more accustomed to looking out for bikes.  In many cases they’re bicyclists themselves.”

“The key to a good network is to put the lanes where people want to go, not just where it’s easy to build them,” Orcutt said.

“The real beneficiaries of all this are the kids, who now have a place to ride, and the older people, who feel safer now that most bicyclists are off the sidewalks,” he added.

biking

Photo by Places for Bikes

“In Brooklyn what you see is the explosion of a demographic — younger people and young families — that are really into bicycling and a city government that is responsive to that,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime Chicago-based bike strategist and director of the SRAM Cycling Fund.  “But pretty much every city has neighborhoods with those same elements.”

“Yet it’s important to remember,” he continues, “that it’s not just hipsters out on those bikes, but also people like a 50-year old cleaning woman riding to work.”


Jay Walljasper — author of the Great Neighborhood Book and Urban-Writer in Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis — consults, writes and speaks about creating stronger, brighter communities.  His website is JayWalljasper.com

Our Bodies Are Made for Walking

Our Bodies Are Made for Walking

Huge health benefits heighten the need to make sure all Americans live in walkable communities. 

walking
Photo by Johnny Silvercloud

Few things in life relieve stress, instill creativity and boost health and more than taking a stroll.

“Walking is a man’s best medicine,” Hippocrates declared in the 4th Century BCE.  “To solve a problem, walk around,” St. Jerome advised during Roman times.“When we walk, we come home to ourselves,” observes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

This ancient wisdom is now backed up by modern science. A flurry of recent medical studies document the physical and mental health effects of walking as little as 30 minutes a day.

“The human body is designed to walk. Humans walk better than any other species on earth,” explained George Halvorson — former CEO of the  healthcare network Kaiser Permanente — at the 2017 National Walking Summit in St. Paul.The three-day events was organized by America Walks — a non-profit group encompassing more than 800 state and local organizations.

“We get less disease when we walk.We recover from disease sooner when we walk,” he said, noting half of all US healthcare costs stem from chronic diseases, which walking helps prevent and treat.“We can save Medicare when we walk.”

The Summit held September 13th-15th — which attracted more than 600 community leaders, health professionals, planners and public officials from 45 states — celebrated the growing public awareness of walking’s many benefits. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged Americans to walk more in a Call to Action in 2015, and the National Association of Realtors reports that “places to take walks” are the number one quality home buyers look for in a neighborhood. Recent research also links walkable places to economic opportunities, social equity, stronger communities and a cleaner environment.

Is Everybody Welcome to Walk?

But Summit goers were reminded there’s a long way to go before walking is safe and convenient for all Americans — a point highlighted at the opening reception by St. Paul deputy mayor Kristin Beckmann, who announced that a 7-year-old girl and a 91-year-old man had been struck down by hit-and-run drivers in the previous 24 hours. The girl suffered a broken leg and the man a concussion in a city ranked relatively high for walkability, according to Walkscore.  

Pedestrian death and injuries are rising across the country at an alarming rate, as part of an overall spike in traffic crashes, noted many speakers at the conference.  Speeding and drunk driving (which frequently involves speeding) are the chief culprits. The influential National Transportation Safety Board recently targeted speeding as an overlooked and deadly problem in America.

Younger and older Americans are not the only ones at risk.The summit focused particular attention on challenges people on foot face in racially and economically disadvantaged communities, as well as rural areas.

“African-Americans are more likely to not live near good places to walk and bike, and more likely to be hit by a car or stopped by police while walking,” noted Rutgers University transportation researcher Charles Brown.

Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, pointed out that people of color often are left out of walkability plans.“We’ve been walking for a long time — to school, to work. But one no seems to think about making our places more walkable until other kinds of people start moving in.”

Unwelcoming streets that deter walkers can become impassable roadblocks to the 54 million Americans who live with disabilities. “I walk when I drive my wheelchair,” said Maryland activist Juliette Rizzio. “So I proudly stand with you to promote inclusion. Walkability. Rollability. Possibility!”

Tyler Norris, CEO of the Well Being Trust, remembered civil rights activist Shavon Arline-Bradley asking a pointed question at the first Walking Summit in 2013: “Is everybody welcome to walk?”

Charles Brown offered an answer at the closing session of this year’s Summit’s.“I see the support, the commitment here to equity,” which he described as an understanding that communities suffering historic disinvestment need help to catch up.“This is the beginning of a movement.”

The Path Forward

The first-ever report card on walking and walkable communities was announced at the Summit, underscoring the importance of the emerging walking movement.The United States as a whole gets a failing grade in the following subjects: 1) pedestrian safety; 2) pedestrian infrastructure; 3) walking opportunities for children; 4) business and non-profit sector policies; and 5) public transportation, which is a key factor in walkable communities. We earned a D for public policies promoting walking, and a C in walking opportunities for adults.

A collective gasp swept the audience as the grades appeared on a screen. Russell Pate — one of America’s leading experts on physical activity — provided some context. “We know these are better than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Millions of people met the standards and so did some communities.”Pate and colleagues at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health oversaw a committee of scholars from numerous fields to assess the state of walking today as part of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.

Rather than deflating Summit participants, this poor performance review fired them up to learn as much as possible from one another about how to improve walking in their hometowns. Here’s what’s happening across the country.

Fresno, California

At a packed workshop, Esther Postiglione of Cultiva La Salud shared tips about what worked to boost walking in Latinx communities around Fresno: Walk to School Days; walking clubs (Pasos a la Salud);  Open Streets events; and community workshops (providing childcare and food) so people can express what they want for their communities. 

“When some city officials told us that people in Southeast Fresno don’t want to walk. Our answer was: That’s not what we hear,” Postiglione recounted. “This shows why it’s important to meet people where they live, play and work.Not expect them to come to City Hall.”

South Dakota

The state’s most remote counties are particularly afflicted by conditions linked to inactivity such as diabetes and obesity. Ann Schwader of South Dakota State University Extension identified and trained “walk coaches” in four rural  communities, who organized local walking campaigns.Schwader will offer another “Everybody Walks! SD” training next February to bring additional communities on board. 

Boston

The city is designating “slow zones” where speeds are capped at 20 mph as part of its Vision Zero commitment to sharply reduce traffic deaths among walkers, bikers and drivers. Forty-seven neighborhoods across town applied to be part of the program, notes Wendy Landman, director of Walk Boston.“The surge of interest by the public to make their neighborhoods safer stunned the city.”

Valley Hi — Sacramento

This mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood suffered a 50 percent higher rate of emergency room visits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and asthma attacks than the Sacramento region as a whole, and 36 percent of its residents were obese. One reason was that walking was stymied by unsafe traffic conditions and crime at the local park. Neighbors, churches and institutions — organized by the Health Education Council — worked to reclaim the park by adding a crosswalk, stepping up law enforcement, increasing recreation activities and launching a weekly walking group, Walk With Friends.Use of the park rose by 274 percent — and the Walk With Friends idea has been picked up in three other parks around Sacramento. 

Decorah, Iowa

Pedestrians are plentiful on sidewalks and trails in this town of 8000 near the Minnesota border until the snow flies and the Upper Iowa River freezes.To keep folks moving December to February, local groups sponsor the Beat the Blues Winter Marathon encouraging everyone to walk, cross-country ski, snowshoe or bike 26.2 miles.“You can take two weeks or two months. You can do two, three or more marathons over the winter,” explained April Bril, one of the organizers.  

Rondo — St. Paul

A freeway tore through the heart of St. Paul’s African-American community in the 1960s, destroying 687 homes and more than 100 businesses even though an alternative route one mile away would have followed a largely vacant rail corridor.“All my friends just went away,” remembers Marvin Scroggins, who grew up in the once bustling Rondo neighborhood.

Many Rondo residents now propose to heal some of the lingering wounds by constructing a half-mile long land bridge over the freeway, creating new space for parks, housing and businesses which can reconnect the community.Local foundations and the state department of transportation are showing interest in the project.“It’s more than a bridge,” explains Darius Gray of the Friendly Streets Initiative, noting that land bridges have been built in Duluth, Minnesota, as well as Dallas, Seattle and Columbus. 

Jay Walljasper — author of  The Great Neighborhood Book — speaks and consults about creating strong, sustainable, equitable, enjoyable communities. JayWalljasper.com


Next Steps for the Walking Movement

Both daunted by the challenge and roused by possibility of making walking as way of life for millions more Americans, many Summit participants pitched in to help America Walks identify 10 priority actions for the walking movement, which was circulated after the event:

Vision Zero Policies, including speed reduction trategic communications to increase demand for walkable places

• Focus resources on underserved populations

• Elevate pedestrian rights in emerging technologies (e.g. automated vehicles)

• Develop metrics to advance walkability

• Document and broadcast best practices and success stories

• Identify and bridge policies from local to federal

• Build state and local capacity and advocacy networks

• Create and strengthen influential partnerships (e.g. insurers, housing)

• Secure public and private investment in walkable environments

How to Turn Neighborhoods Into Hubs of Resilience

 PUSH
Photo courtesy of PUSH Buffalo

Think of it as a silver lining to the gathering dark clouds. We live in an era of extraordinary disruption, from the serial crises of a changing climate to the wrenching shifts of a globalized economy. But in that disruption lies the potential for positive transformation.

Addressing climate change requires adapting to the impacts that are already here—heat waves, droughts, superstorms and more—while preventing and mitigating future impacts. Taking these challenges seriously calls for radical changes in the way we live. It calls us to zero out our carbon emissions, and to rethink the systems that shape our lives, including the economy, food and power. It calls us to fundamentally transition from a world of domination and extraction to a world of regeneration, resilience, and interdependence.

It’s a tall order, no doubt, but that transition is already underway. In our work with movement builders on the front lines of the transition, we’ve identified two key guideposts—connectedness and equity—that point us toward the world we want.

Connectedness is the recognition that our well-being is inextricably tied to that of other people and the planet itself. It means there are no throwaway people, no throwaway places, no throwaway anything. In fact, there’s no “away”; there’s just here. In practice, connectedness is about lifting up the voices of the marginalized, and it means regenerating forgotten places, from industrial brownfields to hollowed-out rural towns and Rust Belt cities. The second guidepost, equity, is about recognizing and repairing the harm generated by situations of extreme power imbalance. Equity is about building power from the bottom up.

When communities are fully engaged in problem-solving, they come up with holistic solutions that address complex, interlocking challenges. Here are three.

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York

When Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Eastern Seaboard in 2012, the waterfront neighborhood of Sunset Park was hit hard. Power lines toppled and businesses were shuttered. The neighborhood’s industrial district flooded, washing toxic residue into nearby residential areas.

But as the people of Sunset Park worked together to rebuild, a hopeful possibility emerged. What if the neighborhood rebuilt in ways that made the local economy more resilient and equitable, while limiting the impact of climate change? That’s the vision of UPROSE, a grassroots environmental justice group that took root in Sunset Park 50 years ago.

“Superstorm Sandy was a real wakeup call for our community,” says UPROSE director Elizabeth Yeampierre. “Climate change is here now, and waterfront communities like ours are extremely vulnerable.” The neighborhood’s low-income, immigrant residents were especially at risk, so in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, they turned to UPROSE for a community organizing effort to prepare for a wetter, more uncertain future.

The plan they came up with builds climate resilience while protecting the environment, health, and—crucially—jobs.

The point is not simply to rebuild what was there before; UPROSE members don’t want more jobs in the same dirty industries that had polluted the neighborhood for decades. “We have a lot of businesses on the waterfront, and we want to keep them here because people need places to work,” Yeampierre says. “But we want safe places to work.” To that end, UPROSE has joined forces with labor unions, the Center for Working Families, and business owners to transform Sunset Park’s industrial space into a manufacturing hub that produces environmentally friendly building and construction materials, powered by renewable energy. And they are encouraging these industries to hire locally.

It’s a plan that addresses many problems at once. In a city with skyrocketing inequality and rampant gentrification, it could help preserve the blue-collar jobs that once anchored the middle class. At the same time, it could reduce toxic hazards and make Sunset Park a safer, healthier place to live. And it could reduce the carbon emissions that are driving that change.

The process of developing the plan was as transformational as the plan itself. UPROSE consults with residents on the future they want, then arms them with the tools they need to make that vision a reality. Some residents take on the role of block captains and gather input and educate their neighbors on city planning processes. Through partnerships with researchers, residents conduct participatory action research on issues of concern. It’s a deeply democratic, holistic approach that builds local power and increases community control over resources—key elements of community resilience.

Buffalo, New York

Left behind by the globalized economy, Buffalo has lost more than half its population since 1950. By 2005, when the community group People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo was founded, residents of the West Side neighborhood were struggling with unemployment, rampant blight, and high energy costs.

At that time, there were an estimated 23,000 vacant homes in Buffalo. PUSH took on a state housing agency that was using vacant buildings to speculate on Wall Street, and got the buildings turned over to the community—with funding to fix them up.

Next, PUSH brought together hundreds of community residents to craft a plan for a large, blighted area. The result is a 25-square-block Green Development Zone(GDZ), which is now a model of energy-efficient, affordable housing. PUSH and its nonprofit development company rehabilitate homes in the GDZ, installing efficiency upgrades, like insulation and geothermal heating, that dramatically lower residents’ utility bills. The organization won a New York state grant to build 46 new homes, including a net zero house, which produces as much energy as it consumes.

The GDZ doubles as a jobs program. Through its construction projects, PUSH has cultivated a growing network of contractors who are committed to hiring locally. And PUSH successfully advocated for New York’s Green Jobs-Green New York program, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing energy upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.

Across the West Side, PUSH has transformed the urban landscape. In partnership with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Massachusetts Avenue Project, PUSH has turned trash-strewn, vacant lots into state-of-the-art rain gardens, small urban farms, and aquaponics greenhouses. These urban oases bolster food security, while providing much-needed green space.

Richmond, California

A predominantly low-income community of color is challenging the oil giant that has long dominated their city.

In Richmond, the 3,000-acre Chevron refinery looms over the city with towering smokestacks and tangled pipes going in every direction. The largest of its kind in California, the Chevron refinery showers Richmond with unpronounceable toxic chemicals and periodic fiery explosions that put residents at risk. As a major source of jobs and tax revenue, Chevron has long held outsized influence on the city’s politics. But, fed up with their toxic neighbor, residents are working to counterbalance the company’s political muscle.

The first step was to activate community power. A coalition of local nonprofits including the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment(ACCE), the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and Faith-Works brought residents together to devise solutions to community problems.

The coalition organized forums and rallies, held regular learning institutes for decision-makers, and encouraged public participation at planning commission meetings. In this way, residents reshaped their city’s General Plan to make Richmond less reliant on Chevron. The new General Plan emphasizes green industries, anti-displacement policies, and better mass transit systems. Now, the coalition is at work translating the plan into projects, programs, and laws.

At the same time, the Our Power campaign in Richmond is working to build community control over essential resources, such as food, land, water, and energy. Our Power partners with Cooperation Richmond, a local co-op incubator and loan fund that helps low-income residents create their own cooperatively owned businesses. The group holds the annual Our Power Festival, which brings together residents, small businesses, and the public sector to envision a transition to local energy management.

Despite this groundswell of community organizing, Chevron continued to hold sway on the City Council. So the organizers switched to electoral tactics to supporting progressive candidates who would stand up to the oil giant. And it worked. In 2014, despite millions of dollars invested in the election by Chevron, residents voted in candidates aligned with community values and renewable energy.

“Winning political power, especially in this political moment, is critical for communities at the intersection of poverty and pollution,” says APEN Action executive director Miya Yoshitani. “If we are going to win back our democracy from the hands of corporations, and win the powerful vision we have for living local economies, we need to invest in organizing the power of the people and the polls in all our neighborhoods.”


Taj James and Rosa González wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Taj James is the founder, executive director, and a board member of Movement Strategy Center, a national nonprofit that promotes movement-building strategies and supports organizations to work more collaboratively and sustainably.

Rosa is the center’s director of applied practice and leads the Community Climate Solutions program to advance transformative resilience strategies that accelerate the emerging transition to a regenerative and interconnected world.

A More Equitable Economy Exists Right Next Door

 Quebec
Photo courtesy Jay Walljasper

  • Business owners gather at an elegant Montreal event center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a large-scale economic partnership.The former chief of Quebec’s largest bank is the guest of honor.
  • Sidewalks bustle with people walking in and out of homes, offices, a bank, a pharmacy, a workout studio and a coffee shop at Montreal’s Technopole Angus — a development that already sports 56 business with 2500 employees and will eventually encompass a million-square-feet of real estate.
  • Morning-shift workers unload barrels of paper onto conveyor belts emptying into giant shredding machines on the shop floor of Recyclage Vanier, a Quebec City firm specializing in secure disposal of confidential documents.
  • A line snakes down the street for a matinee at the Cinema Beaubien, an art deco moviehouse in a quiet Montreal neighborhood. Taxis line up across the street waiting for customers who will soon be getting out of the early show.
  • Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice rings through the taproom at La Barberie Brewery, located near Quebec City’s business district.Their Belgian-style saisons and bestselling blackberry blanc beers are enjoyed throughout the province. A few blocks away, an 18th century monastery inside Quebec City’s historic walls has recently opened its doors as a hotel and spa.

Welcome to everyday life in Quebec — Canada’s 2nd largest province with 8.2 million people. Yet these scenes of economic activity are different in a notable way from similar ones occurring throughout North America.

Each enterprise involves a cooperative or non-profit organization — which together make up 8-10 percent of the province’s GDP.  More than 7000 of these “social economy” enterprises ring up $17 billion in annual sales and hold $40 billion in assets (Canadian dollars).  They account for about 215,000 jobs across Quebec.

Quebec’s social economy (also translated as “solidarity economy”) extends far beyond the province’s two major cities, and includes manufacturing, agricultural cooperatives, daycare centers, homecare services, affordable housing, social service initiatives, food coops, ecotourism, arts programs, public markets, media and funeral homes. The capital that fuels all this economic activity comes from union pension funds, non-profit loan funds, credit unions, government investment, and philanthropy.

“We always say the social economy is simply the formalization of the commons. It’s social ownership, the goal of which is a sustainable, democratic economy with a market — instead of a market economy,” explains Nancy Neamtan, co-founder of Chantier de l’Economie Sociale, a network of social economy organizations whose anniversary banquet is described above. “Our mission is building a broader vision of what the economy actually is.”

“When Chantier started out, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work. We had unions, women’s organizations, green groups, and many thought it was too diverse,” Neamtan says. “But it does work.” Evidence for her assertion is visible all around — Chantier’s office is tucked into a six story building that takes up most of a city block, all of which is filled with social economy organizations. 

Not all of these social businesses are new — some of the credit unions, cooperatives and union pension funds go back a hundred years. “But they were largely invisible to many people until the name social economy became popular,” Neamtan adds.

Quebec’s social economy ranges from a video game creator’s cooperative to a social integration program for Haitian immigrants to a coop grocery in a remote town on the Gaspe peninsula to a network of 8000 home healthcare workers, half of whom were on welfare before being trained for the field.  Here are more examples showing the range of these enterprises:

Groupe Paradoxe

Chantier de l’Economie Sociale’s 20th Anniversary celebration was staged in a renovated church run by Groupe Paradoxe, which teaches at-risk young people job skills in the booming audio-visual presentation, events and meetings industries. 

Desjardins Group

The banker honored for his work at Chantier’s banquet was former president of the Desjardins credit union, founded in 1900 and today the province’s largest financial institution.

The Nitaskinam Cooperative

Also on hand at the banquet was Nitaskinam, an Inuit-run cooperative which designs clothing inspired by art of the Atikamekw people, which has doubled from three to six members in its first year. “The social economy is our traditional economic model and fits with our values,” explains co-founder Karine Awashish, who is also an economic development official of this tribal nation. “I see good opportunities for us to create new social economy jobs in forestry, health services, tourism, arts festivals and youth projects.”

UTILE Student Housing Cooperative

One of the youngest entrepreneurs at the banquet, Laurent Levesque, helped launch a student housing development organization with other activists involved in the headline-grabbing 2012 Quebec Student Strike, collaborating with Chantier de l’économie Trust.  “Students pay 70-80 percent more in rent on average,” he explained, “which creates an inflationary spiral” that hurts not just them, but their low-income neighbors.  With start-up capital from the Concordia Student Union and further funding from social economy partners like Desjardins and the province of Quebec, UTILE is set to break ground on apartments for 160 students.

Technopole Angus

It’s no coincidence that that the Desjardins credit union has a branch in the new Technopole Angus sustainable urban village, which brings opportunities to a working class neighborhood that was rocked when the Canadian Pacific Railway shuttered its machine shops in 1992.  A number of historic brick structures were repurposed, and new eco-friendly buildings constructed, with more planned for the project’s phase II.  The community will eventually include 500 affordable housing units, 450,000 square-feet of office space, 20 local shops, four public squares, a bike-pedestrian main street and a one-acre urban farm growing organic produce.

Recylage Vanier

A non-profit organization started 30 years ago by two out-of-work men who realized the recycling industry could benefit the disadvantaged as well as the earth, Recylage Vanier offers training for people struggling to find work because of low job skills, recent immigration, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, or other challenges. Jobseekers arrive here for a 24-week program that emphasizes work readiness and life skills as well as on-the-job experience.  Most are long-term unemployed, who have been sent by the Quebec employment bureau and social service groups.

“They have to get along with a boss, get along with colleagues, master simple tasks and then take on new ones with more responsibility, all the way up to driving a forklift,” says Nicolas Reeves, one of Vanier’s managers.  For the final four weeks, they split their time between the recycling plant and job hunting with the help of staff counselors. About 85 percent of graduates find work, and 10 percent seek further education, according to Reeves. Recylage Vanier faces stiff competition from two private companies in the field, so clients who value the organization’s mission are important to their success — including the province of Quebec, which provides about half their business.

Cinema Beaubien

This is non-profit neighborhood moviehouse explicitly proclaims its mission to “defend the primacy of persons and labor over capital in the distribution of its surpluses and incomes.”  The cinema’s importance as a community gathering spot can be witnessed in the long lines at the ticket booth, where patrons merrily chat with one another rather than staring at their phones. Taxis wait across the streets to whisk moviegoers to their next destination, about half of which are from the Taxi Coop Montreal.  (In Quebec City, all taxi drivers belong to a cooperative.)

La Barberie Cooperative Microbrewery

Operating as a worker cooperative for the past 20 years explains the success of this brewery and brewpub, says general manager Jean-Francois Genest, who joined La Barberie three years ago after running his family’s bookstore and later converting another bookstore into a cooperative. “The coop is a good plan to keep a place going. Sharing the profits means you attract the best workers. For our part, we try to make their jobs as interesting as possible, offer more holidays and higher pay.” Emilie DuMais, who’s tended bar here for eight years, notes, “You have much more ambition working for yourself than working for someone else.”

Le Monastere des Augustines

A convent dating back to 1700s in the heart of Quebec City’s walled city has just opened as an elegantly renovated hotel, spa, museum and conference center. It is organized as a non-profit in accordance with the social mission of nuns still living there to promote holistic health and spiritual renewal. Besides tourists, spa patrons and participants in corporate meetings, guests also include activist groups holding retreats and health care workers seeking a reprieve from the stress of their jobs.

RISQ

In 1997 Chantier created RISQ (Reseau d’Investissement Social du Quebec), which has invested $25 million in technical aid and capital for social economy businesses, resulting in: 1786 new jobs, 5,119 jobs maintained and job training for 1527 marginalized workers across Quebec, according to their calculations.  RISQ financial analyst Nathalie Villemure, who worked for many years in private banking, notes that they see fewer defaults than commercial lenders. “These people have a cause bigger than themselves, so they work harder and we help them find solutions.”

Fiducie

In 2007 Chantier launched Fiducie, a $50 million “patient capital” (or slow money) fund that provides long term, non-guaranteed loans of $50,000-1.5 million to promising cooperatives and non-profits with less than 200 employees. “We don’t expect to see anything in repayment for 15 years,” says General Manager Jacques Charest. Thirty million of the investment came from union pension funds with the rest from the federal and provincial governments.   

What We Can Learn from Quebec’s Social Economy

While Quebec possesses a distinct culture and history, the emergence of a strong social economy across the province provides practical lessons for other places. 

Recognize the Social Economy When You See It

Cooperatives and non-profit initiatives already exist throughout the US and most other countries, so the first step is seeing, naming and claiming the social economy as part of the commons we all share. 

Look Widely for Inspiration & Ideas

Neamtan points out that the American tradition of community organizing was a big influence on their early work, especially community development corporations (CDCs) that arose to tackle problems of disinvestment in urban neighborhoods. The Dudley Street Initiative, which transformed a low-income community in the Roxbury district of Boston, was a particular inspiration for her. The proliferation of cooperatives in the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain provided another model for bottom-up economic development.

Seek Solidarity

Social economy initiatives benefit from the longstanding sense of solidarity in Quebec, where French speakers were discriminated against and their local economy dominated by English-speaking Canadians, Americans and English.  A analogous situation can be found among racial and social minorities, and in rural and deindustrialized regions where economic power is wielded from outside.

Tap the Power of Government

Government agencies have been a partners and funders in many projects through the years. Social economy initiatives often arose even when conservative politicians were slashing government programs to provide a more humane alternative to strictly market-oriented development. Legislation passed by the left-center Parti Quebecois in 1997 gave the social economy movement a big boost by offering local governments more leeway in supporting community and cooperative efforts to create jobs and promote entrepreneurship.

Partner with Unions

“The labor movement boosted the social economy by making the choice in the 1980s not to just negotiate contracts but to create jobs and support civic enterprises,” explains Neamtan, which led to the creation of the landmark Quebec Solidarity Fund, an $11-billion-dollar pension fund, of which 65 percent is invested in small- and medium-sized Quebec-owned businesses.

Partner with Faith Organizations

Historically, the Catholic church controlled many aspects of life in the province, and priests enthusiastically promoted cooperatives and non-profit institutions as models of the church’s social teaching. By the end of the 20th century when the church’s influence waned in the face of increasing secularization, social economy organizations found numerous opportunities to set up shop in closed churches and convents.  The church remains an ally, Neamtan notes, “especially now that Pope Francis talks all the time about the Solidarity Economy.”

Photo Essay: Commemorative Journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Every year the Italian government organizes a commemorative train journey to Auschwitz in honor of the Italian Jews who were transported from the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence to Auschwitz for extermination, leaving from the same platform from which they left over 70 years ago, with special meetings with survivors of the concentration camp and visits to various camps and monuments.  This year I've been chosen along with other young Italian students to participate in this trip.

 

Stazione di Santa Maria Novella- 70 years ago the were piled on to the platforms to leave, terrified. Now we pile ourselves on, crushing, eager to leave.

 

 

Stopped at the border- dead of night, the mechanical beast rests on the border of two lands. The army in their mountaineering feathered hats patrol the snow covered platforms, then disappear into the night. It's all quiet on this front, except for the echoes of words over cigarettes. The sensation of movement, dull thudding. We're off again.

 

 

 

Buzzing yellow lights, strong non-Italian coffee and we are awake in Poland.

 

 

 

The scramble off the train and scramble onto the bus. A few minutes later we're there. Complete silence along a small concrete path. Fields of snow surround us, and the camp lies ahead.

 

 

 

Birkenau

 

 

As soon as we entered, the sun showed itself. We were lead through snow, sun and wind to the barracks: no more than shacks with shelves.

 

 

A moment of delirium, and then recognition of where we are. Underwhelmed is not the word, but realization that these gates are not evil made real, but made by man, human hands, with an upside down 'B', a personal rebellion, looked at by all, seen by few.

 

 

In every photo the expression was the same. Man, woman or child; dead or alive. A look of 'why' and 'when does it end.’

 

 

Their personal items now fill rooms, to remind us that they aren't just faces, names or videos.

 

 

Just outside the gates, snow spinning through the letters of 'Arbeit Macht Frei', two 'gonfalonieri' stand, not wearing the best outfit for a concentration camp in winter, holding the Tuscan flag, wary of the cameras, enjoying the moment but aware of the gravity of where they are. It doesn't matter what event Tuscany organises, the 'gonfalonier'i are there.

 

 

The flow of students comes to a stop just outside a small gate, waiting to enter the small courtyard where an innumerable quantity of people were killed by firing squad.

 

 

A moment to remember.

 

 

The wavy and worn edges of a book: a list holding the name of every person who died at Auschwitz.

 

 

Gas chambers- claw marks on the walls. our shadows and theirs. No light, despair.

 

 

 Arrested and imprisoned in Mauthausen at 14, Marcello Martini watches a fellow survivor of the nazi death camps tell his story of survival in Auschwitz.

 

 

Other survivors watch from the audience (Antonio Ciseri, Tatiana and Andra Bucci, Vera Michelin Salomon.)

 

 

Antonio Ceseri and Marcello Martini tell their stories in front of hundreds of Italian students in a cinema in Krakow, all there to hear their stories.

What Your Zip Code Says About Your Health

Park
Photo by Fotolia/pootsonnaja

Tapping the power of place to keep us all healthy.

One number stands above all others as the best indicator of good health.  It’s not your blood pressure, cholesterol level, average daily calories or even the age at which your grandparents die.  It’s your zip code.

This fact has sent shockwaves across the county.  The chief aspiration of American democracy is that everyone deserves an equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Yet medical evidence shows that people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods face greater health and mortality risks.

“That should not be…. All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community,” says Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental justice movement and a professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University.

“Health disparities don’t just happen by accident,” he declared at the 2nd National Walking Summit, accentuating his point with a series of maps showing that high levels of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and obesity correlate strongly with low-income neighborhoods and those with a history of racial segregation.

Dr. Anthony Iton, former health commissioner in Alameda County, California, (which includes inner city Oakland and wealthy suburbs) notes: “we have areas where people live shorter lives, substantially shorter — 20 years shorter than in other areas.”

The Case for Healthy Places report just released by Project for Public Spaces (with support from Kaiser Permanente and Anne T. and Robert M. Bass) chronicles this stark contrast in health outcomes across the nation.

“Numerous studies have explored how differences in the design and function of low and high-income neighborhoods contribute to health disparities,” the report states.  “Research shows that low-income groups and racial and ethnic minorities have more limited access to well-maintained parks or safe recreational facilities …These areas are also significantly more likely to lack access to supermarkets and places to obtain healthy, fresh food.”

The good news here is that we can do something about this problem.

 “If you have parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and wide sidewalks, you have good health outcomes,” explains Ron Simms, a neighborhood activist in Seattle’s African-American community and former Deputy Secretary of  HUD, who commissioned some of the first research identifying zip codes as a critical determinant of good health as chief executive of King County, Washington.

This is the central message of The Case for Healthy Places, which maps out a common sense solution known as placemaking. It’s collaborative blueprint for improving health in all communities by strengthening and reimagining the public realm — those gathering spots, local institutions and other places where we come together as neighbors, friends and citizens.

“Placemaking is one of the most powerful things we can do to address physical and mental health as well as revitalize democracy and add more conviviality to our lives,” explains Tyler Norris, Vice President of Total Health Partnerships at Kaiser Permanente. “It supplies us with a sense of belonging, which creates resilience and well-being, according to scientific evidence.”

“Heightened bliss is what happens in a public space,” adds Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces. “We seek them out — even if it’s just an interesting street corner — because we know it’s good for us. It calms and relaxes you, like meditation. You can feel your blood pressure go down.”

Just 10 to 20 percent of a person’s health condition is attributable to the access and quality of health care services.  More than 40 percent is due to social and economic factors in our lives and community, 30 percent to individual behaviors shaped in part by the neighborhoods we inhabit, and 10 percent to the physical environment around us, according to a 2016 study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The Case for Healthy Communities details the accumulating medical knowledge about the importance of place on our health and offers well-proven strategies, practical steps and real-world success stories in these five target areas:

1. Social Support & Interaction

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam popularized the concept of social capital in his book Bowling Alone, which documented how the social and economic health of a community depends on people working together in organizations, volunteer projects and other personal networks (symbolized by bowling leagues). High levels of social capital also correlate with lower mortality rates, according to research by the Harvard School of Public Health. A Harvard study shows that socially disconnected people are two to five times more likely to die from a variety of causes than those with strong ties to family, friends and neighbors.

In light of this evidence, it’s disturbing that only 20 percent of Americans regularly spend time with their neighbors and that the number of Americans who report having no one to turn to in times of crisis tripled between 1985 and 2004.

The value of public spaces to boost physical and mental health as well as reduce stress has been well-documented. A study in Miami’s East Little Havana neighborhood found that architectural features such as front porches that stimulate social interaction reduces levels of psychological distress while features that inhibit interaction, such as parking on the ground floor, instill feelings of isolation and unease in subjects.

Public space restoration projects in three lower- or middle-income Portland neighborhoods resulted in statistically significant improvements in social capital and lower incidences of depression.

2. Play & Active Recreation

Parks, playgrounds and ballfields are literal common ground — places where people of all socio-economic backgrounds and personal beliefs can meet, interact, and get to know each other better. It is hard to fear, hate, dismiss or ignore people you’ve scrimmaged in basketball, crossed paths with on a bike trail or watched your kids swoosh down a slide together.

They are also essential for our health.  The Centers for Disease Control and the Surgeon General’s office both prescribe 22 to 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week — and double that for kids.  And the easiest way to do that for most of us is at a nearby park or playground — it’s close, free and open to all.

A 2008 Canadian study found that kids living less than 2/3 of a mile from a park with a playground were more than five times as likely to be a healthy weight than ones who didn’t. An American study found that children living in disadvantaged communities were twice as likely to not enjoy convenient access to a park.

But the benefits of active recreation extend to all age groups.  You enjoy reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease through regular physical activity.

In Phoenix, the city’s FitPHX project has partnered with Phoenix Children’s Hospital to encourage families to become more active by marking walking routes in parks, which have been outfitted for geo-caching games (a high-tech treasure hunt) for both English and Spanish speakers.

When Oklahoma City was named as the “#2 Fattest City” in America by Men’s Health magazine, Republican mayor Mick Cornett rallied the city to do something about it. An $18-million sidewalk improvement fund was approved by voters as part of a tax increase that also included money for parks, bike trails and senior wellness centers around town. Oklahoma City has now added hundreds of miles of new sidewalks, built eight miles of bike lanes on the streets (there were none before), added 100 more miles to the recreational trail network, built new gyms at many public schools and created a public rowing center on the Oklahoma River.  Low-income neighborhoods, where health and obesity issues are most severe, are the biggest focus of the city’s programs for active living and healthy eating.

3. Green & Natural Environments

We’ve always known going outdoors into nature is a boost for our creativity, peace of mind and overall happiness.  Now we know it’s critical for our physical and mental health too. Mounds of recent medical studies chart the health benefits of parks, gardens and wild areas on ailments ranging from asthma, PTSD and diabetes to ADHD, depression and dementia. Even people not suffering from any particular condition notice improvements in memory, mental well-being and overall health indicators.

Research in Philadelphia found that neighborhoods where vacant lots were turned into gardens saw a drop in violent crime, according to an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.  

St. Paul’s newest park — 13 acres of in the poorest and most ethnically diverse corner of the city — exists because neighborhood activists worked tirelessly to ensure that the site of a 19th century home for wayward girls was not walled off by private developers. Residents went door-to-door asking everyone what they wanted to see in a new park. With the support of the Trust for Public Land, they are now carrying out a vision for a unique public space featuring an amphitheater, playground, farm plots, greenhouse and arts programs.

4. Healthy Food

The power of place can make a significant impact on people’s eating habits. 

Studies in Seattle, California and New York City found that neighborhoods with numerous stores and restaurants offering wholesome food enjoyed lower obesity rates than neighborhood that did not — even accounting for factors such as income and education levels.

While it’s often difficult to attract grocery chains or nutritious restaurants to lower-income food deserts, research shows that small-scale farmers’ markets and community gardens can positively influence eating habits.

When two farmers’ markets opened in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, 97 percent of patrons at one market were eating more vegetables and fruit, and 98 percent at the other, according to a study published in the Journal of Community Health.

In Denver, a study showed that 56 percent of community gardeners ate recommended five servings of vegetables and fruit a day compared to 37 percent of home gardeners and 25 percent of non-gardeners, according to USDA research.

Little-town-on the-prairie Albert Lea, Minnesota (pop. 18,000) is determined to prove that healthy lifestyles are not just a big-city thing. They’ve adopted a community-wide wellness campaign called Blue Zones, based on the work of National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner. About 40 percent of all adults in town have joined exercise and healthy eating programs, along with nearly all schoolkids in grades K-12. One-third of locally owned restaurants, all school concession stands, and one large supermarket now offer new nutritious meal options. Blue zones participants have collectively shed more than six tons of weight.

5. Walking & Biking

Walking is such a great way to stay healthy that US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a special Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities last fall.

“Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy said. “That is why we need to step it up as a country ensuring that everyone can choose to walk in their own communities. Physical activity should not be the privilege of the few. It should be the right of everyone.”

The landmark report is based on definitive medical evidence that moderate physical exercise cuts your chances of diabetes, dementia, depression, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and high blood pressure by 40 percent or more.

A major study released this year shows that lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity, according to Cambridge University researchers who studied more than 300,000 people over 12 years.  Another new groundbreaking study conducted over 50 years shows low levels of physical activity are more lethal than high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other closely-watched medical conditions.

Biking offers nearly the same health, economic and social benefits, although far fewer people bike today than walk — a situation that is being remedied by the widespread introduction of safer,  more comfortable bike facilities such as protected bicycle lanes, special bike boulevards, better-connected networks of bikeways across communities and safer accommodation of bike riders at busy intersections.

Communities that encourage biking and walking are more healthy, vital places where people naturally want to live, work, shop and play. The American Planning Association recommends nine placemaking features to create these kind of strong, lively communities:

  1. Sidewalks
  2. Bicycle improvements, such as designated lanes and bike racks
  3. Traffic calming improvements, such as traffic circles and median islands in streets
  4. Crosswalks and walk and bike signals
  5. Aesthetic improvements, such as public art and fountains
  6. Public spaces, such as plazas and parks
  7. Street trees
  8. Green infrastructure, such as greenways and rain gardens
  9. Street furniture, such as benches, bus shelters and good signage

Health professionals, clinics, hospitals, insurance companies, medical schools, health care companies, public health agencies, non-profit organizations and research institutes in the field  have important roles to play in promoting healthy placemaking projects. “By utilizing their facilities, land, funding capacity, employees, political power and other resources, the healthcare sector and its civic partners have a special opportunity to promote health and well-being in their communities,” say authors of The Case for Health Communities.


Jay Walljasper writes, consults and speaks widely about how to make communities more healthy, equitable, sustainable and enjoyable.

How to Make City Streets More Friendly

Laughter, lively music and lip-smacking appreciation of food from many cultures animates St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota as a crowd whoops it up at the Better Bridges Bash.

Even chilly temperatures and gusty winds can’t dampen folks’ enthusiasm—nor does the unpromising location right next to the roaring traffic on the I-94 freeway. Indeed, that’s the point of the event: to better connect neighborhoods on either side of the freeway by improving the bridges and to explore ways to make the area more friendly to people when they are not in cars.

This is why—in addition to enjoying a kazoo parade, a Liberian-American rapper and the Lexington-Hamline Community Band—festival goers wander into tents where they are encouraged to think expansively about their neighborhood’s future.

“We’re seeing that this community is engaged in how the streets feel, and they are letting local leaders know what they want,” offers Isaak Rooble, who is standing next to a gallery of photos showing possible improvement projects for this mixed-income, mixed-race community. People stick green post-its to ones they like; pink ones to those they don’t; and yellow for maybe.

Among the photos generating the most excitement are:

• A land bridge covering a section of the freeway with green space;

• Archways, mosaics and murals at entrances to bridges over the freeway;

• Medians in the middle of busy intersections making it easier for people to cross the street; At another tent, people are invited to share their own brainstorms for the neighborhood on an Idea Tree. Here are a few of the brainstorms:

• “less cars”

• “fountains”

• “walking path and track”

• “more street parties”

“I am passionate about community development and helping migrants get involved with the community,” says Isaak Rooble, a young Somali immigrant working with Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI), the organization hosting the event.

FSI is conducting surveys with as many people as possible in English, Somali, and Oromo (a language spoken in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya) to learn more about issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the freeway. This is part of the organization’s “community-led mission,” which means “we are guided by the ideas coming out of neighborhoods,” explains Robyn Hendrix, an artist organizer with the group.

Walking 

On the Streets Where We Live

The Friendly Streets Initiative grew out of a group of volunteers working with various neighborhood organizations to make biking and walking safer in St. Paul. In the summer of 2011, they sponsored a series of parties along Charles Avenue which runs through a racially- and economically-mixed community a few blocks from the freeway to discuss community concerns. The group created a survey to measure residents’ opinions and offered a photo gallery of innovative street designs found around the world.

Closing off  blocks on Friday evenings, the parties featured food from local restaurants, games, and the opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other better. “More than 700 people turned out and we got a real sense of what the community thought,” recalls Lars Christiansen, an urban sociologist at Augsburg College who lives in the neighborhood and is now FSI Director. “What they liked and what they didn’t.”

The ideas folks liked most became the nucleus of the Charles Avenue Friendly Street plan, which emphasized four street improvements:

1. Better-marked crosswalks at busy intersections;

2. Traffic circles, which help slow the speed of vehicles at low-volume intersections;

3. Medians and other modifications at busy intersections, which provide refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street;

4. A raised intersection, and sidewalks bumping out into the streets at select locations.

The volunteer committee formally organized themselves as the Friendly Streets Initiative to build support for the Charles Avenue project among neighbors and on the city council. Construction on Charles Avenue began in 2014 along a four-mile stretch of the street.

“FSI built grassroots support for change in St. Paul, a city reputed to have lots of opposition to bike and walk projects,” observed Jessica Treat, director of Transit for Livable Communities in an interview earlier this year. Since then TLC has become FSI’s fiscal sponsor.

Treat credits FSI with mobilizing young families and other groups in the city who don’t usually weigh in on planning decisions, which showed political leaders the depth of public support for walk and bike projects.

Council Member Russ Stark, whose ward contains a section of the project, notes that FSI has changed how business is done in St. Paul. “By talking to people where they live, by using block parties and other means to find out what people value on their streets, they’ve helped change how we do civic engagement. We usually hear from a vocal minority on projects, but we don’t necessarily know what the public as a whole thinks.”

All Over Town

One of FSI’s major pushes now is a project coming out of the Better Bridges Bash to create better bike, foot and transit access in neighborhoods on either side of the I-94 in between the Capitol and the Minneapolis city limits.  This includes Rondo, the historical African-American neighborhood where photographer Gordon Parks and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins grew up, much of which was bulldozed in the 1960s to construct the freeway.

“It was a beloved community,” says Melvin Giles, FSI community organizer, who remembers Rondo as a young child. “People would walk to the neighborhood store and kids could see all the others kids. They’d play baseball and football in the street. You couldn’t do those things today.”

What was once Rondo is probably the worst place in St. Paul to walk today, with a freeway ripping through the middle of the area and bridges that feel dangerous and dispiriting to cross.

“They seemed not to care a lot about poor kids and African American kids getting to school, or anywhere else, when they built the freeway,” remarks Anne Parker, an artist working with FSI who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.

Conditions are grim on many of St. Paul’s I-94 bridges. Many walkers endure sidewalks so narrow that they must scrunch together to walk side-by-side, and switch to single-file if any other walker needs to pass.

Better Bridges Make Better Communities

 “A lot of outside groups who want to help the neighborhood just come in and start doing stuff—FSI did not do that,” says Melvin Giles, explaining why he joined the group. “As an organization we help the community decide what it wants by offering a process for people to think about what they want from their streets—and then we will work with them.”

Giles helped convene a series of listening sessions with elders and leaders in the African American community. “FSI is not doing things for us; it’s doing things with us,” he says. “It’s not just community engagement. FSI shows you how to turn your ideas into reality.”

One of the community leaders Giles contacted is Marvin Roger Anderson, a retired attorney and former Minnesota State law librarian. “Encouraging bicycling and walking are important to reweaving the Rondo neighborhood, so I am delighted to be working with Friendly Streets,” Anderson says. “Biking and walking are healthy. Biking and walking can save you money. We need to create a culture of biking and walking.”

The long-term goals of the project are to call on the community’s expertise and creativity to inspire fresh thinking about transforming these bridges from barriers into connectors between neighborhoods. Planned reconstruction of the freeway offers opportunities for big ideas that stir excitement in the community. Ranking high among the ideas proposed: a land bridge, wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes, bike lanes, better winter maintenance, greater attention to disabled users, traffic calming, making it feel more like a public space, and adding a cultural wall to celebrate the history and art of the Rondo community.

In the short term, FSI wants to tap community expertise and creativity for ideas on improving existing bridges. “The whole point of FSI is to transform streets of fear into streets of joy, in ways both large and small, affecting the physical environment and the emotional one,” says Christiansen.

Here are the chief lesson’s of Friendly Streets Success, which can be applied in other communities around the country.

Rethink Community Engagement

It’s no longer good enough to simply present neighborhood people with a plan, and ask them to approve it. Residents are the world’s leading authorities on what their communities need. They must be involved in the planning of a project from the very start. Their ideas and goals must be given serious consideration every step of the way.

Show How New Ideas Work

Installing temporary prototypes of proposed improvements lets everyone get a feel for how well they work. It can dispel unwarranted fears and reveal potential problems.

Recognize How Things are Connected

Social, economic, cultural and psychological issues are all linked. A better sidewalk or walking trail can boost economic opportunity, racial inclusion and community aspirations as well as transportation. When you understand all that is at play with a given project, you’ll get more successful outcomes for everyone.

Take Art Seriously

Art is not a frill—it’s indispensible in helping everyone reimagine their communities, and discovering new approaches to old problems. “Asking people to draw or paint or act out what they would like to see in their neighborhood allows everyone to think differently and find new inspiration,” notes Robyn Hendrix, arts organizer for the Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI) from 2014 to 2016. “The arts activities brought kids and families out, and created a festival quality that also drew more low-income people and people of color,” adds FSI director Lars Christiansen.

Work with the Community

Find out who are the leaders, which may not be who you expect. Learn about neighborhood concerns. Speak their language (literally and figuratively). Listen.

Be Flexible

No community visioning method is universal. What works in one place may flounder just a few blocks away. Discover the tools the community itself uses.

Make it Fun

“A feeling of festivity, levity and wonder enliven the conversations about public spaces,” concludes Christiansen. “You need a sense of play in everything you do.” FSI events have included mini-golf, living statues, chalk drawing, flagmaking and lots of music and food.

This is excerpted from the new book, America’s Walking Renaissance, which can downloaded free as a PDF. Author of The Great Neighborhood Book, Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to improve communities of all kinds.

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