Walking the Talk

Mayor R.T. Rybak was scheduled to deliver the opening remarks at the 2004 Walkable Communities Workshop a few weeks ago, but he must’ve run up against a few obstacles on his way to the Coyle Community Center, tucked into the northernmost corner of Cedar Riverside, near the I-35/Washington Avenue interchange. According to the workshop, such obstacles could include narrow sidewalks, faded crosswalks, construction barriers, or even ugly buildings. And Minneapolis is riddled with these types of liabilities.

The workshop’s unusually large turnout of enthusiastic walkers—plus a smattering of Metro Transit workers, city planners, community leaders, designers, and a police officer—caused the parking lot to overflow with cars, mini-vans, and SUVs. For my own part, I wedged my little sedan between two dumpsters, rather than parking and walking from two blocks away. I know now what my trepidations were: There are just too many impediments to walkability, like the shattered sidewalk I spotted earlier on Cedar Avenue as I was speeding past the Triple Rock Social Club. No thanks.

The workshop was led by Deb Spicer and Peter Moe. They are from the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, and they are fluent in the language of pedestrians. “Signage,” “visioning,” and “wayfinding” were favorite words, and they also dwelled on “obesity” for a moment. According to the journal Obesity Research, Minnesota taxpayers fork over $1.3 billion each year to pay for obesity-related medical costs. Spicer said that major contributing factors to the continuing rise in the gross domestic weight are urban sprawl and a transportation system designed for cars rather than pedestrians. This situation, according to Moe, is totally “old-school.”

Based on old zoning laws, residential areas have been separated from commercial and civic centers. Thus getting to most post offices, schools, and shops requires a fair amount of driving. Moe was enthused about Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park, which was recently renovated. New condos are mixed with ground-level retail sites. He said this is an example of a good new-school community plan. The wider sidewalks, numerous benches, and delightful architecture create an environment that encourages pedestrian behavior.

This is not the case with Cedar Riverside, where the group went on a “walking audit” to identify “barriers and opportunities.” Even though there were no local business owners in the group, and only two women were from the neighborhood, attendees were willing to offer their thoughts before we even got to the sidewalk: “We need signage!” “That hill is too high. It’s not safe!” “Maybe we can get some pretty, antique-looking lights, ones that arch and hang over the trees.” “Hey, what if that parking lot were turned into a little road?”

Many believe the light-rail train now running through Cedar Riverside will further boost the neighborhood, which is already viewed as a vital gateway for new arrivals, immigrants, and refugees. According to the walkability group, Cedar Riverside also needs to be an active, safe zone for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. “This is where vision comes in,” said Moe, “an opportunity to turn a space into a place.” We passed in front of a housing complex, an empty lot punctuated by broken chunks of pavement and scrappy, meager landscaping. “Hey, wouldn’t this make a great plaza?” quipped a perky college student. “Maybe we could erect signs in different languages to assist with wayfinding,” said an earnest older woman. —Molly Priesmeyer