A Walkable Village and Morrisville Complete Streets
After an entire generation of designing streets and roads around the car, truck, and snowplow, American cities from coast to coast are re-investing in and re-examining the use of streets and sidewalks. Bigger cities like Seattle, San Francisco Austin, Chicago, New York, and Miami have all adopted progressive policies toward multi-use streets by implementing dedicated bicycle lanes, traffic-calming implements such as raised/textured crosswalks, and green space “bumpouts.” There is also more public seating, pocket parks or “parklets’” and increased greening with urban trees and other landscaping. Scores of articles and research papers point out the socioeconomic benefits of better designed streetscapes and offer empirical evidence that shows how these re-designed or re-purposed streets are providing better health (both mental and physical), greater tax revenues through increased retail sales, less pollution, fewer traffic incidents and injuries, and other valuable civic benefits. These improvements have been studied and well documented, and finding the results is as easy as a Google search. But less publicized efforts and results exist right here in Vermont.
Cities like St. Albans and Barre, and of course the Queen City of Burlington, are easy examples with a walk down their recently improved streets and sidewalks. New decorative light posts, brick pavers, granite curbing, and tree grates welcome pedestrians with aesthetically pleasing and safe walking zones. Stores, cafes, restaurants, and other retail establishments are moving in and thriving in these new, vibrant streets. Children and seniors are crossing the streets more safely. Bicyclists are coming in from outer regions of the city and have ample space to ride, or to park and lock a bike. These Vermont cities were, as little as a decade ago, facing high vacancy rates and depleted downtowns, and now look like bustling economic and community engines. And with recent projects like the Route 100 Truck Route and other community improvements, like the “Chair-art-able Project” and growing music series at the Oxbow, it’s high-time Morrisville re-thinks our downtown with an attitude toward “Living Streets” and greater connectivity.
The European woonerf (pronounced VONE-erf), Dutch for “living street,” functions without traffic lights, stop signs, lane dividers or sidewalks. Indeed, the goal is to encourage human interaction. Those who use the space are forced to be aware of others around them, make eye contact and engage in personal interactions. These spaces invite pedestrians, bicyclists, slow moving vehicles, playing children, peddling vendors, and just about any community member to pass through, stay and linger, or play and be active. It’s a beacon for life in the village, and more than 6,000 woonerfs exist in the Netherlands, alone, and thousands more across Europe and United States. Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace is our best local example, but the brick paved streets of Portland, ME or crowded Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA are familiar to New Englanders, as well. Couldn’t we create such a space near Pleasant Street, or in an oft-forgotten quad like the Brigham St. parking lot?
Walkability in the streets comes with measurable results. The Journal of the American Planning Association notes that just a 5 % increase in walkability is associated with “a 32.1% per capita increase in time spent in physically active travel, a .23-point reduction in body mass index, 6.5% fewer vehicle miles traveled, 5.6% fewer grams of NOx emitted, and 5.5% fewer grams of volatile organic compounds emitted.” The Landscape Architecture Foundation found that “an increase of walking for errands amounted to 70 more minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week.” In one Colorado case study, a newly improved streetscape lowered vacancy rates from over 13% to 7.2% over three years, and increased tax revenues over 16% in one year after construction, doubling the typical rates for all of metro-Denver. Morrisville counted 860 homes in the village in a recent census, with over 25% of those homes having children. Nearby, within walking distance, are The Manor, Copley Hospital, and other senior service centers. Surely our children and seniors would benefit from more pedestrian activities in and around town. The AARP has been promoting “Complete Streets” for decades, supporting research and guides for implementation. And, likewise, our retail and restaurants would benefit from more pedestrians on the sidewalks and streets.
Streets and sidewalks that incorporate segmental paving, including clay or concrete pavers, cobblestones, or other stone pavers decrease maintenance budgets annually from city departments. Pavers have longer life cycles than their rigid counterparts, such as asphalt. They create easy access for sub-surface utility repairs (take out the pavers, make the underground fix, put them back in). Deliberately designed in-lays and patterns can direct traffic or parking and eliminate the need for re-striping every 2-3 years. Permeable-paver streets and parking lots – designed to let water infiltrate and percolate through the earth rather than runoff through storm drains into our rivers and streams – reduce salting and plowing frequency. The vast air voids present in permeable paver aggregate bases have an insulating-effect of geothermal warmth. Permeable paver systems also encourage tree and vegetation growth, reducing irrigation and maintenance needs, by increasing natural ground water re-charge and cooler groundwater temperatures. Heavy metals and other pollutants are filtered out in the aggregate base before they reach native soils and ground water. The colors, textures, and pattern changes encourage traffic calming. Reduced speeds mean reduced accidents and injuries, as well as better retail success as slower drivers can see what they want to buy. Environmentally friendly concrete, clay, or stone pavers don’t utilize petroleum in their fabrication, and can often be sourced locally.
With the upcoming addition of Morrisville’s first co-op and downtown grocery store since 1890, the village should piggyback off what is sure to be an exciting and vibrant addition by increasing the walkability and connectivity to a re-born Portland Street. A vivid, colorful pedestrian mall or mixed-use plaza from the new MoCo on Pleasant Street would create just such an avenue, and could boast rich vegetation, interesting and functional paving patterns, public seating and shelter, and maybe some kiosks or carts selling local wares and crafts. The plaza would encourage more commercial business activity and fill long-vacant storefronts on Portland Street, perhaps fostering growth to Hutchins or Brigham Street. A pocket park, or parklet, would encourage community members to “linger” in town a little longer, and life brings life. More people equals more people. We should re-open dialogues about connecting downtown with the also-emerging commercial side of town, or “Morrisville-North,” with a walkable/bikeable recreation path that could follow the river through and over the Oxbow, or over to Clark Park.
The community should come together and voice preferences on these aspects, much like a well-attended charrette between local planners, architects, community members, and businesses did in 1999. This local study and open-forum of ideas labeled many concepts we still hear milling about in Morrisville almost two decades later. The study is available at the town offices, and is still very relevant today.
Let’s re-open the conversation and capture the excitement of a burgeoning downtown to create a better downtown. To make it happen, though, will require holistic involvement from the people who will use it. In a quote about the lessons of promoting pedestrian malls and complete streets, one planner commented “it just can’t be the city. The private businesses, the community, and the public sector all have to strongly support it.” I’m in.
Joshua Goldstein lives in Wolcott with his wife, 3 sons, and 2 Great Danes. Joshua does his shopping, biking, playing, and walking in downtown Morrisville. He is the owner of Stonewall Hardscapes/Segmental Paving Solutions, a full service landscape masonry company specializing in segmental paving design/build and outdoor living areas.