Smart Growth America hits a Complete Streets milestone

Wed, 2013-08-14 06:10 -- Liz Enbysk

Livability is one of the three core values of the Smart Cities Council – and streets are an important part of what makes a city livable. Today Council Advisor Smart Growth America (SGA) celebrates 500 Complete Streets policies on the books in cities and towns across the U.S.

Over the past eight years, the SGA's National Complete Streets Coalition has helped cities and towns make their streets safer and more accessible for everyone who uses them. From our perspective, the ideal street will promote livability using the design philosophies of SGA combined with smart sensors that let those streets report current conditions. You'll get a sense of that in excerpts from SGA's announcement below, which highlights the Complete Streets policies adopted by No. 500 -- Memphis, Tennessee.

The celebration of Smart Growth America's Complete Streets milestone focuses in part on Memphis, Tennessee, whose new Complete Streets measure pushed SGA over the 500-policy mark. Earlier this year, Mayor A.C. Wharton signed an executive order directing that new road facilities and major renovations in Memphis accommodate all users and all modes. In addition to the development of a new multimodal Street Design Guide, Mayor Wharton announced plans to further expand the city’s bicycle facilities, including construction of 15 miles of new protected bike lanes. This official embrace of Complete Streets is part of a remarkable, citizen-driven turnaround for a city so long built around the automobile that Bicycling magazine twice named it one of America’s worst cities for bicycling.

Remaking streets from the ground up

For years, dedicated Memphians had worked to improve conditions for walking, biking, and transit in the city, but the grassroots movement for safer, more vibrant streets most visibly coalesced a few years ago in the Broad Avenue area in east Memphis. Originally the commercial corridor for nearby railcar manufacturing, Broad Avenue had fallen into neglect by the 1990s, with only a few active businesses in a landscape of fast roads, acres of parking, endless curb cuts, and indistinguishable sidewalks–a bleak environment where nobody would walk if they could help it.

This was the scene faced by the Historic Broad Avenue Business Association and local partners including Livable Memphis when they decided to highlight the vitality they knew was locked away under all that asphalt. In November 2010, during a two-day festival they called “A New Face for an Old Broad,” scores of volunteer organizers demonstrated the district’s potential as a mixed-use, multimodal corridor, enticing residents out of their cars with pop-up businesses filling vacant storefronts and lots, and reconfiguring the street with home-brew restriping that added buffered bike lanes protected by diagonal parking, slowed traffic speeds, shortened intersection crossings and placed landscaping to improve the pedestrian environment.

The corridor is also the keystone of the planned Overton-Broad Connector, a two-way protected cycle track that’s part of the city’s work with the Green Lane Project. The Connector provides the final on-street link between a popular new rail-to-trail path and Overton Park, a classical urban park in midtown Memphis. This application of Complete Streets design concepts catalyzed the district’s rebirth, with scores of new businesses and sizable private investment moving to the area since the demonstration. Longtime area business owners specifically credit the narrower, slower street and the bike lanes for attracting more people to pass through and linger in the district.

Photo: Memphis demonstration project; Kyle Wagenschutz, City of Memphis