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Creative Planning Leads to Safer, More Inviting Streets

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Written by Anita Creamer

Even in California, where the car has long been considered king, the streetscape of livable and age-friendly communities should be friendly, safe and inviting to people of all ages. After all, the kinds of sidewalks, streets and outdoor spaces that easily accommodate young parents with strollers also work well for bicyclists, grandparents pushing walkers and people using wheelchairs.Across the state, efforts are underway to make safe, accessible streets and sidewalks a reality. And for good reason: Walking is key to robust health at any age, especially for people 65 and older, and 80 percent of Americans want to live in communities that have the kind of streetscapes that encourage them to walk. Conversely, people without access to good sidewalks are 53 percent less likely to be active at a basic level for good health.Instead of endless miles of gridlock on major traffic corridors, imagine a community with the hometown feel of blocks filled with people strolling and browsing, or people congregating on benches and decks in front of businesses. If there were small, inviting, park-like spots carved from the parking spaces on the streets, would pedestrians stop and gather in these unofficial town squares?

That’s the idea behind the parklet movement, which started five years ago in San Francisco and has grown from there around the world. San Francisco’s booming “ Pavement to Parks” efforts have spawned more than 60 parklets, some drawing passersby to gather near businesses, some turning alleys into pedestrian malls, some even extending the tiny plots of urban residential front yards.

Sacramento in 2014 launched its own pilot project, with two parklets planned so far for the city’s core neighborhoods.

“Because it’s not what you normally expect to see, cars will slow down,” said Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates executive director Jim Brown, a fan of the parklet movement. “It will make the street safer for bicyclists and people crossing at intersections. It will be inviting for people. Suddenly, there are reasons to stop in the neighborhood.”

“For seniors, what makes parklets intriguing is they become a place to take a break. You can take a stroll, walk and then stop and then continue.”

But will those walkers be safe as they make their way across the streets? In general, the very young and the very old are at greatest risk on the streets: In California, adults 65 and older comprise almost a quarter of pedestrian fatalities, making the state second in the nation in the deaths of elderly pedestrians. In San Diego, the situation is even worse: Older adults represent 27 percent of pedestrian deaths but only 10.6 percent of the county’s population.

That’s why the Vision Zero organization is urging San Diego city officials to adopt its goal of eliminating traffic deaths within the next decade. The idea is to target one dangerous intersection after another and one fast-moving, heavily traveled arterial after another, using collision analysis data to pinpoint which busy vehicle corridors are in greatest need of safety measures such as improved bike lanes, well-marked crosswalks, curb extensions and raised medians.

Vision Zero, established in Sweden in 1997, is a global movement to protect pedestrians. It is slowly gaining traction among officials in several California communities: In San Francisco, officials in 2014 adopted Vision Zero principles as its road safety policy and began researching ways to put plans into place to combat the city’s high number of pedestrian traffic fatalities. Inspired by Vision Zero, San Mateo officials are planning 15-foot-wide sidewalks with space for trees in the streetscape, part of creating increased safety and quality of life for pedestrians. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation in 2014 adopted Vision Zero’s goals and standards, as well.

Now San Diego is thinking of following suit.

“People would definitely walk or bike more if they felt safer,” said Kathleen Ferrier, advocacy director for Vision Zero’s San Diego efforts, which are an offshoot of the Circulate San Diego walkability movement.”

“Creating a safer environment gets people out walking. And framing the discussion as helping create a livable community is a positive message.”

With innovative ideas like parklets and creative campaigns designed to eliminate pedestrian fatalities, the streetscape can be the front porch for California’s livable communities, a place to congregate and enjoy. And the ultimate positive outcome for Californians of all ages -- for children playing on the sidewalks, for people on bicycles, for grandparents out for a stroll -- is safety, accessibility and vibrant good health supported by their communities.

This is the first of a series of blogs talking about what it means to create a livable community. Find out more on AARP's Livability page. You can also see what we are doing in California by following us on Facebook or Twitter.

Anita Creamer is a freelance writer based in Sacramento and a veteran newspaper and magazine reporter who most recently covered aging issues for The Sacramento Bee. You can reach her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.

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