Let us guide you out of walkway hell

Like most of us, I reached my favorite childhood haunts—the pond below the whispering pines in North Carolina, Taylor Park where we flew kites in Millburn, New Jersey, the creek bed with geodes and arrowheads on our farm in Pennsylvania—on foot.  Perhaps my love of places and of walking was born exploring those childhood Shangri-La’s.

As a child I also had the unusual, and unfortunate experience of being in a car crash as a cyclist, a tricyclist. I was riding in the street between our apartment buildings when a young man backed out of a driveway around the corner. I saw him and pedaled toward the curb as quickly as I could. But not fast enough. He not only hit me but also ran me over. My tricycle was crushed, and I got several stitches above one ear (as well as my first beer while waiting for the doctor).

My parents blamed themselves because they had seen the driver racing through the neighborhood but had not spoken up. But the real culprit was the design of the road that made a blind, right-angle turn at one end of our buildings and that lacked any sidewalk or other place to play off the street.

Perhaps my lifelong wariness of the car came from that early violent encounter. In any case, as an adult, I’ve taken many steps to maximize walking (and cycling), while veering away from driving. As a result, unlike most Americans, I’ve been able to progress amiably through about half my adult years walking or biking to work. I do so now.

As I matured, my love of outdoor places prompted me to become a landscape architect. That in turn led to these posts. They are based on the years of research that underpinned my work as a landscape architect starting in the mid1980s. They are also based on my work as a landscape contractor starting in the mid ‘90s. And they’re based on my experiences as an activist with the urban land trust, Portland Trails, here in Maine for 10 years.

At Portland Trails I won the Kay Wagenknecht-Harte Trailblazer Award for, among other things, designing trails and bridges and managing their construction.  The World Wildlife Foundation awarded me an Innovation Grant to locate and map scenic trails and other places of conservation interest in the nine towns around Casco Bay. One year I was among those awarded the Most Outstanding Comprehensive Plan by the New England Chapter of the American Planning Association for a plan that urged a neo-traditional approach adding sidewalks and bike lanes to commercial areas of Woonsocket, R.I. I was also part of a team-produced newsletter on visual assessment that won a national Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Over all those years and all those endeavors, I cannot remember a single project that did not include the goal of creating places attractive to people on foot.

One project in particular struck a nerve. A complex of townhouses here in Portland contained a U-shaped road running between facing building blocks, with right-angle curves at each end. It was the same layout as the one that led to my being struck as a child! I urged the reluctant project manager to connect the two buildings with a small park, breaking the street into two dead-ends for parking. He said that was beyond the scope of work and that there was no budget in any case for that amount of work.

This small park was created to allow children to play safely between two blocks of townhouses formerly separated by a through street with blind curves.

By happenstance, a phone call ascertained that the city was about to reconstruct the street. Officials were amenable to terminating the street mid-block. To this day I’ve had few professional joys greater than watching children playing safely in the small park that was created between the dead-ends. I hope these posts lead you to similar successes for you as a walker and for your designs for walkers of whatever age.

P.S. The word “us” in the headline is no mistake. It reflects my commitment to post and respond to relevant comments, to involve you as active participants in developing the best possible body of usable knowledge for designing walkways and attractive open spaces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *