Walkable communities: Utahns taking to the sidewalks

Published: Sunday, Oct. 17 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

Window shoppers pass a picture of John Coltrane at Orion's Music on Salt Lake City's Highland Drive.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Not that long ago, Wiebke Lips walked to run errands. Now she sits — in traffic.

In her Honda, often going nowhere fast, she'll sometimes get stuck on a memory of sidewalks packed with pedestrians flowing along streets rarely framed by a windshield.

Lips, 26, has been in a kind of dashboard daze for about two months now, since moving to Draper from Manhattan.

"In Utah we drive off in the morning and come home at night so we don't socialize with our neighbors," Lips said. "I think that's so sad. It would be great to leave the car at home for once."

Actually, she believes in leaving the car home a lot more than once in a while. She and other residents are trying to add a little humanity to a place literally built for vehicles: Legend has it that Brigham Young wanted Salt Lake's city streets wide enough to allow a wagon pulled by a four-head team of oxen to turn without having to back up. That approach and grid system was duplicated around the state.

But in several of those towns that became the suburbs of today, residents are taking to the streets to make them places for strolling, shopping, eating and socializing.

All along the Wasatch Front, city leaders are reinventing Utah towns into places where residents feel invested in the community and a part of its character, said Kenneth Bullock, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

"We seem to have lost our sense of heritage and community," Bullock said. "Now we're realizing that it's a sense of unity we're looking for, not isolation."

Community character

A snapshot of Salt Lake Valley and Utah County reveals that almost every major urban area and suburb are planning a walkable community, complete with stores opening directly onto sidewalks and parking relegated to side or back lots. The sudden interest in veering away from strip malls and sprawling parking lots is mainly due to residents' desire to create unique gathering places in their communities, said Ted Knowlton, assistant executive director at Envision Utah.

"These are places that feel good. They give a community identity and it gives people pride in their community," said Knowlton, who works with Envision to promote safe and healthy living in Utah.

In South Jordan, for example, city planners are producing a sense of community by paving the way for three town center-style developments, ranging from a retail-restaurant-governmental complex to the 4,200-acre Daybreak planned community.

South Jordan Towne Center, at 10400 South and Redwood Road, is the only development already built, though new businesses continue to be added to the site. It will ultimately include a library, city hall, an ice-skating rink, and outdoor shops and restaurants.

"South Jordan has always espoused a quality of life; we build places worthy of our affection," city manager Rick Horst said. "It goes back to olden days when you could walk out and see neighbors on front porches instead of getting into a car and driving to a big parking lot and being impersonal. It goes back to a day gone by."

On a much larger scale, the city and Kennecott Land are planning Daybreak, a community at 11400 South and 4500 West with more than 13,000 homes, 1,250 acres of parks, a recreational lake, town centers, schools, churches and mass transit.

Horst said along with creating a community feel, walkable developments also help save gas, reduce congestion and cut back on pollution. The sidewalk-facing storefronts also serve as informal surveillance, he added.

"When people interact like this in this kind of environment we find there's less incidence of crime and graffiti and things like that — everything's visible," he said. "We find that the overall quality of life is improved."

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