Sidewalk dreams: Fort Worth aims to be a walkable city

04/11/2014 4:02 PM

04/12/2014 6:41 AM

Dream up a homey image of a perfect neighborhood, and most will include sidewalks.

The concrete strips make great places to walk the dog, safely jog and maybe just stop and jabber with a neighbor. Children use them as canvas for art in their favorite medium — chalk.

So when city officials got together to talk about what makes a healthy city as part of the Blue Zones initiative Friday, it naturally turned to those pedestrian pathways.

Fort Worth City Councilman Dennis Shingleton said the city can encourage developers to build more sidewalks and connect developments with schools through various incentives.

“We have a chance to impose our will — if you will the bully pulpit — on developers and tell them here is what we want — we want sidewalks that are six feet wide,” Shingleton said as an example.

“Do we always win? No, but we have the opportunity to make those things happen,” he said.

Blue Zones and city officials presented their vision for walkable cities at the Built Environment, Lifestyle and Health conference at the UNT Health Science Center School of Public Health near downtown Fort Worth on Friday.

The Blue Zones, a healthy-city initiative based on making healthy choices available to residents, is kicking off this summer with road shows to attract hundreds of volunteers to the cause, said Joel Spoonheim, executive director of community programs for the Blue Zones project.

The Blue Zones project in Fort Worth is headed by Julie Wilson, who said they received over 800 applications for the initial 18 staff positions to run the five-year initiative, and they are still accepting applications.

Spoonheim said Blue Zones can help bring all the parties to the table to promote healthy development, such as policy makers, representatives from schools and the development community and then present options for smarter development.

In one example from a California city, he said Blue Zones helped the town move on-street parking to the outside side of the street to separate cyclists and pedestrians from the vehicle traffic.

“This is what smart design looks like. Often it is just about moving paint, that is the amazing thing. It doesn’t have to be harder than that, and you can do it as a community,” Spoonheim said.

Shingleton said the city can use platting and zoning to build a walkable city, like many of the central city-areas were built decades ago.

The Arlington Heights neighborhood, one of the more historic areas of Fort Worth, has several minor arterials built with sidewalks for the community to get around on foot, he said. Newer neighborhoods, built with the car in mind, tend to have fewer walkable and bicycle-friendly routes.

Though a historic neighborhood, the Stop Six neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth also has few sidewalks, which is a complaint that Councilwoman Gyna Bivens hears often.

She said the city also needs to build sidewalks and encourage pedestrians in some of the older areas of town, especially neighborhoods that are continually asking for help.

“It is a problem that I am very familiar with because I live in Stop Six,” said Bivens, though she was not at the conference.

“There are some areas where walkability has been developed and then there are other areas where we yearn to see more.”

Arlington City Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon also spoke at the conference, saying Arlington is promoting an active city through sidewalks, bike trails and investing in parks.

Shingleton also brought up the city’s $292 million bond election for the May ballot, which has several million dollars dedicated to new parks and trails, including $1.26 million committed to building bicycle routes in Fort Worth.

“Instituting healthy living is more than just design, and it’s not just physical. It is mental health also,” Shingleton said. “Parks serve as a refuge for some communities.”

“I’m not allowed to stand here in front of you and say please vote for the package, but I’m asking you to please vote for the bond package,” Shingleton said to laughs from the crowd. “We need this bond package.”

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