At first glance, I suppose nothing appears to be amiss with the scene in this photograph. It’s Main Ave., the primary business and tourist district of Durango, Colorado. But it could be any number of mid-sized Western towns.
The town has done an admirable job retaining its historic integrity and aesthetics of the architecture and has managed to mitigate the threats from the big-box stores that have metastasized on the town’s fringe. Yes, Main Ave. lost its hardware store, furniture stores, Woolworths and a couple of pharmacies to high-end restaurants, tacky T-shirt shops and cheesy galleries, but “real” businesses, aimed toward locals, remain. Empty storefronts don’t stay vacant for long, despite high rents, and the seven-block stretch is usually pretty vibrant. Many of the buildings have residential or office spaces in the upper stories. Every 20 minutes the bus comes by, ferrying passengers to and from the other end of town for free.
To a degree, it’s the type of mixed-use downtown that many communities are striving for these days, as our love affair with the suburbs and the exurbs, the McMansions, culs-de-sac and ranchettes, fades. But look a bit closer and you’ll see that even Durango, with its passion for bicycles and outdoor recreation, still has a long ways to go.
Demographers tell us that both Millennials and Baby Boomers are bailing on the ‘burbs, giving up their interminable commutes, and heading for the bike-able, walkable urban cores. It represents a shift in the way we relate to each other and our communities as a whole: We are ready to give up being ensconced in backyard or behind the wheel, and get out into the public spaces to interact with others. The trend not only holds for urban areas, but also for mid-sized towns like Durango, where real estate values generally decrease as one moves away from the city center.
A city government has a variety of tools it can use to promote bike- and walk-ability: It can give incentives for infill development, relax height limitations in downtown areas to encourage density, and change zoning rules to allow for more mixed-use neighborhoods. But the most powerful tool is the way it uses its roads: streets, highways, bike paths, sidewalks, light rail and the like. Just as roads can influence where and how development happens, they can also change the shape of a community. Here in Durango, the quality of life jumped noticeably after the riverside bike/foot path was all linked up several years ago. When the city revamped a rough and nasty artery by adding big sidewalks, generous bike lanes, a roundabout and tree-filled medians, it not only made for a safer and more pleasant drive/bike/walk along the route, but also upped the desirability of the neighborhoods alongside it.
It's time to extend the courtesy to the heart of the city, its downtown.
Look back at the photo above. That stretch of road isn’t exactly hostile towards pedestrians and cyclists in the way that much of America’s roadways are — the speed limit is low, and a lot of traffic lights keep motorists in check, so it’s a safer bet than many of Durango’s other streets. Still, it’s also not that friendly. Though it’s not a major artery — no one drives Main Ave. to get anywhere quickly anymore — it retains its arterial design: Automobiles are given four lanes, six if you count the parking zones; bicyclists have no dedicated path of travel, since the sidewalks are off-limits, forcing them to ride closely to parallel-parked cars, risking getting doored; pedestrians are herded onto sidewalks that are wide enough to walk on, but little more.
This design, or lack thereof, has virtually eliminated public gathering spaces in the town’s core. Stop on the sidewalk to talk to someone and you’ll impede the flow of traffic. In order to keep foot traffic flowing, restaurants and such are prohibited from blocking the sidewalk with tables and chairs, so sidewalk cafes are virtually nonexistent. Want to take a break and sit down in the shade of a tree and watch people wend their way down the street? Forget it. The whole streetscape was made for movement, for funneling people from one place to another. We feel as though we are trying to reach some destination, though really, we’re already there — the downtown district, the core of commerce, is and should be the destination, not a thoroughfare.
Really, this seven-block stretch of the main drag is useless as a street. It’s a car-clogged road to nowhere. It would better serve residents, visitors and businesses if it weren’t a street at all, but a pedestrian mall, a la Pearl Street in Boulder. But that’s a big leap. A middle way, however, can be found in an unexpected place: Grand Junction, Colorado.
Grand Junction is hardly known for its walkability, or even livability. It’s a sprawling, automobile-loving, fossil fuel boomtown. Its downtown somewhat resembles Durango’s, with nice historic buildings and a Main Street once wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic. Decades ago, energy-boom-fueled sprawl started sucking the life out of downtown, and Main Street lost its arterial status, so city leaders reacted by redesigning the road to make the area more desirable. First, they reduced the street from four to two lanes, making it meander slightly to slow folks down. Then they filled up all that extra space with bigger sidewalks, little public seating spaces, patios for restaurants, trees, benches and sculptures. More recently, they extended the concept to another street that runs parallel to Main. Rather than feeling as if they’re being pushed through the space, motorists and pedestrians alike feel as if they’ve arrived at their destination.
Rebuilding a town’s main drag is a huge, expensive project, and would surely ruffle a few feathers. But for Durango and all the towns in the West that are increasingly relying on “quality of life” to drive their economies, it’s the right thing to do and the right time to do it.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.