Public transportation and biking infrastructure can vastly improve a city’s success. But the key element of a strong and established urban environment is walkability. With the advent of the car, cities began to be designed around the it instead of around people. Some of the resulting suburbs have become lavish neighborhoods where the wealthy live in mansions, gated from the rest of society. But for a majority of suburbanites, their environments are isolated, unattractive and uninspiring. At first that big house in a subdivision of other big houses looks like a good deal. And the further west you go the cheaper the price. But when you factor in commuting 8, 10, 15 miles every day is it really worth it, either financially or mentally??? I moved to a condo building downtown four blocks away from my office. I’m on the river, close to Downtown and Riverdale and have all my everyday needs met within safe biking or walking distance, no further than 2 miles. I like living in a walking environment. And I think most people do too. Just look at one of the latest high end shopping developments in Little Rock. The developers of the Chenal Promenade wanted to create a walking shopping district because people like this kind of environment. Ironically there is no way to get there unless you have a car. People have been sold on the developers promises of cheap housing in the countryside away from the stressful and hectic city life. But once you sit down and crunch the numbers and really think about how stressful and hectic the suburban life is, you may start to see through the suburban nonsense.
One of the biggest things I learned from walking around the city more is you really don’t realize how bad the situation is until you actually walk it yourself. I learned this the day Nicole and I rode the bus out to our church in Oak Forest and we had to walk along Fairpark Boulevard for a few blocks. I had grown up going to Oak Forest UMC all my life and in the back of my head I guess I had always know there were no sidewalks along this street but it didn’t register with me until we got off the bus and started tromping across peoples yards as cars whizzed by.
This became even more true to me this past Monday. UALR sponsored a lecture and walking audit of the University District with Dan Burden, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Walkable and Livable communities Institute. Dan has studied around the world and has traveled across the U.S. to help build better, more pedestrian friendly communities and to transform car oriented development into people oriented development. He was a great speaker and the lecture was informative. There was a lot of the typical, “plant more trees, build smaller streets” talk that are common at these events but with some amazing before and after transformation picture of communities around the country. If you would like to listen to Dan’s presentation here is a link to one he put on in California.
And here is a link to the Channel 11 coverage of the walk. (See if you can spot me. I’m in the orange vest!)
But the most beneficial part of the day was the walking audit of campus. We walked from the Student Center south to Asher, west to University Ave and then up to the Campus entrance at 32nd st. It was truly an eye opener. Did you now the posted speed for University Ave is 25 mph??? Do you know anyone who drives 25 mph on University Ave??? Below are some pictures of our trip. Around 100 people attended the walk and even more were at the lecture. This was a wakeup call about how bad the area around our premiere university is and I see some changes for University Ave in the near future. You would think if there was a well designed and safe walking environment anywhere in a city, It would be around a university campus!
Other than Midtown, most of my walking occurred in downtown or the surrounding neighborhoods. I was probably in the Rivermarket area the most. It’s a beautifully vibrant and alive area that give a glimpse to what all of downtown could be like. I claim it to be the best examples of where the pedestrian takes precedence over the car. And the Riverfront parks on both sides of the river offer some of the best trails and stimulating walking environments in the city. Further in, the Central Business District is like going to a busy amusement park and then accidentally getting locked in after it closes. During the weekday downtown comes alive but after 5 it becomes a ghost town.
There are a few survivors that keep their businesses open after the work hours which makes walking downtown at night kind of like a treasure hunt, looking for the pearls amongst the emptiest. Ej’s on 6th and Center is my favorite hangout after hours. But there’s also Doe’s, Vinos, Lulav, and Ciao’s and some other restaurants and bars that are worth seeking out.
Riverdale is like a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde neighborhood. A majority of the business area is extremely hostile to walkers. It’s pretty embarrassing to be seen walking alongside Cantrell Rd. But the Riverfront parks further west offer some of the best views of the River in the city and are prime places for all sorts of activity. My favorite place in Riverdale is where these two environments collide and a small pocket of a dense walkable neighborhood forms at the restaurant row on Rebsamen Park Rd. These buildings (Buffalo Grill, Faded Rose ,etc…)are built close to the street and despite being a busy street, is still comfortable to walk to by pedestrians and a great spot to eat outdoors. Also west of downtown are the Stiff Station and Capitol View neighborhoods. These are some of the older neighborhoods that were build when walking was still a common thing. The residential streets all have sidewalks and surround a small commercial core at the intersection of Markham and Kavanaugh. I frequent this area a lot mostly for Spokes bike shop and the Oyster Bar.
Further west are two of the best walkable neighborhoods in the city, Hillcrest and the Heights. These two neighborhoods used to be one separate city and are often still referred to as Pulaski Heights. They were the first suburbs of Little Rock but were built completely different from today’s model. They were tight, dense communities where the residential and commercial fabrics merged together at transitions and were connected to Little Rock by a street car line. I would like to say It was public transportation but in fact, Street car systems were often privately built by developers to encourage people to move to their new neighborhoods. How cool would it be if that still was the case today! These are the neighborhoods that most people think about when describing a walkable neighborhood.
The sidewalks are nice and the storefronts are close to the street. There is on-street parking to buffer pedestrians from moving traffic and encourages drivers to slow down and parking lots are moved to the back of the buildings. Parking lots are usually put out front because when a person is driving by, they are more likely to stop and shop if they can see where they are going to park their car from the street. Fortunately, this has the opposite effect in a walkable neighborhood like this. People are more likely to enter a shop off the street than if they have to cross a sea of black asphalt and cars.A great blog to read through about Pulaski Heights history is the Forbidden Hillcrest blog. Lately it’s been more of a police beat blog but if you click on the link below and read the older entries. It has some great history and photos of the area.
South of Little Rock are the MacArthur Park and SoMa (South Main) neighborhoods, the original residential areas of Little Rock. South Main is becoming an exciting district all its own. There are still some holes along South Main where buildings have been removed to make way for parking the car but through efforts of streetscaping and reuse of the remaining buildings, the pedestrian is slowly becoming the main focus once again. The community Bakery is always a popular spot. One of the biggest draws to SoMa was Juanita’s which unfortunately for South Main (and possibly for Juanita’s themselves) decided to move to the Rivermarket last year. But the good news is The Oxford American had decided to move to their old location to create a sort of southern culture center for writers, musicians and southern food. It should be a great addition!
But perhaps one of my favorite walkable communities is actually across the river in Argenta. North Little Rock has put in a lot of effort in the past decade or so in to revamping its Main Street and it stands as one the best examples of how to transform a street into a community. The streetscaping is some of the best I have seen and the surrounding neighborhood is filled with great craftsman style homes. It has a grocery store, pharmacy, a few bars and restaurants a library, post office and bank and some retail shops. Everything a person could need in walking distance.
There are some great neighborhoods for walking in Little Rock, but overall, being on foot can be a little intimidating. It was kind of strange to me that if you saw two people on a sidewalk alongside a busy street, the one in gym clothes listening to an I-pod while jogging may not look strange at all, but the person in normal work clothes or even nice clothes walking down the same street caused people to pause and wonder why this unfortunate soul was stuck without a car. Sometimes I was that guy on the street, not because of some unfortunate occurrence, but rather to try and start a new trend.