Late last year, I embarked on an expedition into the unknown. I spent my lunch breaks conducting research, so you, the loyal reader could have a better understanding of what is wrong with our built environment. What powerful study did I launch? The walkability of downtown Peoria.
The results… well, it becomes painfully obvious that we no longer value alternative modes of transportation other than our personal automobile and we have built everything else around them. Walking is great for somebody else, so long as it’s not us.
What is walkability? Quite simply, it is the ability of people to get to their daily necessities by foot and the conditions they encounter along the way.
Why is it important in 2013? It has always been important, but with rampant health related issues stemming from physical inactivity, environmental issues related to sprawling development, and economic issues facing our city budgets – it seems we have lost our touch in designing healthy communities.
We spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to figure out what might bring our cities back to life, but we skirt the obvious. On my lunch break, free of charge, I thought I could do my part to get to the bottom of this decades old mystery. I decided to use City Hall as my starting point, and worked in various cardinal directions (N, E, S, W) documenting what I saw along the way. I had a hunch what I was going to find, but nonetheless, found it very necessary to bring it to the surface.
Traditionally, the amount of time and length people are willingly to hoof it is 5 minutes or 1/4 mile. This is known as the walk shed. So I broke my walk up into 4 walk sheds, or a 20 minute walk. Peoria follows the contour of the Illinois River, and due to how the original street grid was laid out, there is no such thing as a straight shot north from City Hall. I did the next best thing and went with what was built for me.
Time to get steppin’. My Route
The first few steps were enjoyable. The City Hall lawn and artwork to my left, and the Sacred Heart Church to my right. Architectural eye candy – so far so good.
…and that’s where the journey stopped being interesting.
Heading northwest on Fulton, crossing Monroe I was greeted by the Civic Center parking lot. Had I not just passed a large parking deck that was being constructed, I might not be so bored already. A big chunk of my first 5 minutes was spent crossing a barren sea of yellow-striped empty parking spaces.
I was faced with a fork in the road. Either I choose to go right and jog sorta north on Glendale or veer west on MLK. Since I didn’t want to meander into a medical plaza (because what is a pedestrian going to find in there?) I took MLK northwest-ish.
To most, this street scene seems pretty tranquil. Nice wide street, a boulevard, sidewalks on either side. There’s not much happening and not much to complain about… and that’s what I thought too. But you start to realize that you are only a 1/4 mile from the center of downtown and it feels like you are 15 miles from a city or urban locale. Somehow it seems, the suburbs got lost and built in the city.
The sidewalks are of a comfortable width, but there’s no one on them. There are covered bus stops which is a huge plus, but the landscape around you suggests you might as well drive. With two lanes in either direction and no stop lights or stop signs to impede your forward progress, the 30 mph quickly becomes 35 or 40.
With a look over to the right I can see what I passed up. Huge grassy setbacks, parking, and single-use buildings that don’t invite me in.
At this point I’m pretty bummed that nothing in 1/2 mile has perked my interest. Oh wait, I found something:
There’s a first for everything. In this case, with such high-speed pedestrians whizzing by, a sidewalk roundabout was installed to decrease head-on walking collisions. All joking aside, I don’t get it.
One thing this area of downtown gets right is the influx of residential units adding to the needed population density. There are many apartments along the way. This is the right idea, but the wrong shape. A horribly bad demonstration in what should be done to encourage more people to live downtown to generate more “foot traffic.” These apartment complexes, assisted living residences, and housing units are unabashedly suburban in nature – but you might say thus far that they fit perfectly fine with everything around them.
A truly unique topographic characteristic of Peoria is its bluffs. This part of the walk takes you up a hill into an area where beautiful homes sit atop the bluff and overlook the city. Sadly, the walk to get up there is no more interesting than the first 15 minutes. I encountered a little variety with this brick paved sidewalk in front of a historic home. Seems as though it was one of two that survived the wrecking ball so it needed to be landmarked.
Walk It Off: Final Thoughts
The 20 minute walk is comfortable. The sidewalks are in much better shape than elsewhere in town if that is any consolation. If you had to walk this way, you could do it with relative ease. You can see that creating functional sidewalks is possible. If you chose to take the bus, you would even have a couple decent places to wait for it. However, for all that is good in the above, the fact that you still have to walk more than 20 minutes (4x what people typically put up with) to get to your essential daily needs trumps any sort of sidewalk comfort.
There aren’t a variety of uses to intrigue anyone walking around here. No shopping. No dining. No entertainment. No recreation. There are many people living nearby, I can see the place where they live, but I can’t tell where they work, where they play, or what they do. The street itself is more of an arterial valve to get people through the area quickly and without restriction. There aren’t any marked bike lanes – although the street is certainly wide enough to permit them. Due to the setbacks of buildings, the fences that restrict access to street life, I am left with the feeling of being intruder just passing by.
This walk is mind-numbing and boring. It’s not what you’d expect to be in or near a downtown, nor is utilizing the benefit of its location to the fullest. The tragedy is that most of the built environment here is relatively new and will be staying with us for a while. Modern standards and suburban practices of building have been applied in the very area that suits it the least. For a walk that takes you from the downtown urban center uptown, you are transported from some place to no place within a matter of a couple minutes.
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