My Community is not an Inviting Place to Walk

People want to walk in a neighborhood that is aesthetically pleasing: trees, flowers, and bushes are prevalent; buildings are located close to the street; and garages or parking lots are hidden out of view and away from where people are walking. If a neighborhood has no or very little vegetation; buildings are located far from the street; and large driveways, garages, and parking lots are prevalent, the neighborhood will look barren and inhospitable and people will not want to walk

Build homes and buildings that support the pedestrian environment

By examining the two pictures below, you can see the difference that building designs and setbacks can have on the aesthetic character of an environment. Clearly, the image on the right looks like a more inviting place to walk than the image on the left.

Neighborhoods with buildings that are located closer to the street (i.e., short setbacks) are generally more pleasant for walking than neighborhoods with buildings that are located farther from the street (i.e., deep setbacks). People in neighborhoods with short setbacks can better interact and see people who are walking along the street or working or living inside of the buildings. This interaction and transparency creates a safer and more interesting walking environment.

Setback requirements are established in building or zoning ordinances that developers must follow when building new buildings or homes. Ask your city or town officials what the setbacks standards are in your community.

Monitor and influence new development

When new development is being proposed for your neighborhood, pay attention to when the proposal goes in front of your city or town council. Work with city or town officials and your neighbors to try to decrease the setback distance by asking or requiring developers to move parking lots and garages to the rear of the buildings or homes and by bringing the buildings up closer to the sidewalk and street. In some cases, such changes might necessitate a variance or special permit. While variances and special permits are suitable for one-time changes, you may need to work towards changing the municipal codes or zoning ordinances for long-term, systematic changes. The City of Anchorage has prepared a Frequently Asked Questions section about zoning, zoning changes, and variances, although they differ from city to city and from town to town, .

When a building is being redeveloped in your neighborhood, work with city or town officials to be sure that any new setback guidelines are being followed. Though it might take awhile in a neighborhood that is already built-out, through redevelopment, eventually buildings can be brought closer to the street or sidewalk. An alternative approach to bringing the building closer to the sidewalk is to bring the sidewalk closer to the building. This can be achieved by working with your neighbors and city or town officials to install sidewalks that are not immediately adjacent to the curb and instead create at least a 6-foot to 10-foot wide planting strip between the street and the sidewalk where trees bushes and flowers can be planted.

Create design guidelines

To ensure that new development in your city or in your neighborhood contributes to the pedestrian environment, work with your city or town officials to create design guidelines that developers must follow when they build new buildings or redevelop existing buildings already in your neighborhood. These design guidelines can incorporate visually interesting and pedestrian-friendly features into homes or buildings such as front porches, hidden or alley-accessible garages, fencing, diverse facades, and various other building details. Examples of neighborhood design guidelines can be found for numerous Seattle neighborhoods.

Provide appropriate landscaping

It's not very pleasant to walk in a neighborhood if it is barren — if there's no shade, there's no birds or squirrels, there's no leaves rustling in the sunlight, and there's no cover from the heat of the sun. A tree-lined street may be just what your neighborhood needs. Additionally, flower beds and the planting of bushes can make a neighborhood greener and a more pleasant place to walk.

The careful use of landscaping (flowers, shrubs, and trees) in a planting strip between the sidewalk and the street can provide separation between motorists and pedestrians, reduce the visual width of the roadway (which can help to reduce vehicle speeds), and provide a more pleasant street and pedestrian environment for all. If no planting strip exists or it is not wide enough to support trees or other types of vegetation, then planting trees and plants on the other side of the sidewalk can also help make the walking environment more pleasant.

The benefits of trees planted along a street or in your neighborhood include:

  • Aesthetically, trees planted along a street unify a neighborhood streetscape and provide visual interest to pedestrians and motorists.
  • Properly placed screens of trees and shrubs decrease traffic noise along busy streets and highways.
  • Tree shade reduces air conditioning costs in residential and commercial buildings and cools streets and sidewalks for pedestrians, lowering temperatures in the shade about 10 degrees.
  • Properly placed and cared for trees and shrubs significantly increase residential and commercial property values.
  • Trees provide habitat for a large variety of animals.
  • Trees store carbon, produce oxygen, and clean the atmosphere.
  • Trees connect us with nature and reinforce spiritual and cultural values.
  • Trees reduce water pollution in streams, rivers, dams, and estuaries.
  • Trees reduce soil erosion.
  • Trees help recharge ground water and sustain stream flow.

For more details on the benefits of trees, visit the National Arbor Day Foundation's web site on the benefits of trees.

How to get these trees planted in your neighborhood

To get trees planted in your neighborhood, contact your city or town to see what programs there are for tree planting. In most cases along major or arterial streets, the municipality has jurisdiction over the planting strip between the street and the sidewalk. Sometimes, the adjacent property owners or a homeowners association are required to maintain the landscape strip. The planting of street trees along local or collector streets is usually the responsibility of the property owners or a homeowners association. If this is the case, meet with your neighbors and/or your homeowners association to get a continuous series of trees planted along your street. Contact your city or town, most likely your parks department, to see if the have a program and/or funds for planting trees along the street or sidewalk. Funding may also be available from local businesses or through neighborhood grants. If you have no sidewalks in your neighborhood, contact your city or town to see who has jurisdiction over the land adjacent to the street and work to create walkways and street trees at the same time. Make sure that the new trees will not block the pedestrian walkway or visibility at corners or driveways.

Planting trees / tree locations

Local planting procedures may vary depending on the climate and soils of your community. See the National Arbor Day Foundation's Tree Planting Guide for assistance in identifying the right trees for your neighborhood. According to Denver Digs Trees, an exemplary volunteer organization which helps people throughout Denver plant street trees in their neighborhood, if there is a planting strip between the sidewalk and the street that is at least 5 feet wide, center the tree there. If the landscape strip is less than 5 feet wide or if the sidewalk is attached to the curb, measure 5 to 7 feet back from the sidewalk to locate the tree. If there is no sidewalk, measure at least 10 feet back from the curb. For healthier stronger street trees, leave 35 feet between new or existing large variety street trees. Avoid planting trees under power lines.

For public safety and good visibility along the street, trees need to be away from driveways, alleys, fire hydrants, mid-block crosswalks, intersections, street lights, traffic signals, STOP signs, and buried utilities. Low branching trees should not be planted so close to the edge of the road that cyclists are forced further out into the road. Additionally, trees with large trunks should not be placed next to high speed streets, in narrow medians, or on the outside of curves where they might get hit. For trees that have recently been planted on your property near sidewalks, you can prevent the roots from buckling the sidewalk by watering trees for longer and less frequent periods of time (this will encourage roots to grow deeper) and by cutting young roots regularly along the sidewalk. Check with your city or town for more information on tree setback, planting, and pruning guidelines.

Street tree maintenance

If you have street trees in your neighborhood, you can help ensure that they will always be healthy by preventing damage from lawnmowers and vandals; weeding, watering, and fertilizing the area; and trimming any small offshoots. Read more about these tasks at the City of Rochester's web page on street trees. Once planted, tree branches need to be kept trimmed so they do not encroach into the street or sidewalks and do not block visibility. Tree branches over the street should be at least 14 feet high to avoid hitting sanitation trucks and school buses. Branches near sidewalks should be trimmed up at least 8 to 10 feet to avoid hitting pedestrians and bicyclists and allow motorists to see around corners, driveways, and alleys. Trees in medians also need to be trimmed up to allow left turns out of and into driveways and side streets. While many cities and towns require the adjacent property owners or homeowner associations to trim the tree branches along the streets, many cities usually provide maintenance to trees in medians and mature trees where the branches are too high to reach without special equipment.

Small improvements that go a long way: flowerbeds

A simple idea with high aesthetic benefits is to carve out an area adjacent to the street or sidewalk to plant a bed of flowering plants or shrubs. This area need not be large: sometimes the prettiest flower-beds are only a row of flowers wide. Property owners and passersby alike will appreciate the effort, the color, and the enjoyment of your flowers. If a number of people in your neighborhood also create flowerbeds, the entire neighborhood will be enhanced. You'll also meet your neighbors when you are out gardening. Flowerbeds should not be placed where they may block or interrupt a sidewalk or walkway along a street, block a crosswalk, or where they may force people to walk in the street. Also, consider planting species that are native to your climate since they will require less maintenance and look better in the long run.

Streetscape improvements: other ways to make walking more pleasant along the street

In addition to street trees and other landscaping features that can be planted to improve the streetscape, benches, paving treatments, decorative tree grates, raised planters, lighting, and art can also help improve the walking experience of pedestrians. The expense of some of these improvements may appear to limit them to commercial areas, but neighborhoods may be able to find grant sources to help fund improvements. Some homeowner associations or areas with a large number of apartments and high-rise residential buildings generally can warrant the installation of these improvements as well.

Benches and raised planters can provide places for people to rest, take in a view, converse, or wait for a bus depending on how they are situated. Benches should be made of sturdy, vandal-resistant materials to discourage graffiti, scratches, and other forms of vandalism. Fixtures should always be placed so they avoid blocking the walkway or creating an obstruction to a person in a wheelchair. There needs to be an understanding about who will maintain these fixtures.

Paving treatments can create visual interest and can include different colors in concrete sidewalks or the use of bricks or pavers in certain areas. Different colored concrete can be used to designate certain areas for certain activities, such as bicyclists in one area and pedestrians in another, or can be used to create interesting mosaics. Darker pavement colors will result in cooler walking environments in hot desert climates. While bricks and pavers can be used in similar ways, they should be used sparingly in areas where they will not pose tripping hazards or uneven surfaces for bicyclists or people using wheelchairs.

Art and decorative tree grates can also create visual interest and can provide pride and identity within a neighborhood. Art should be tasteful and as vandal-resistant as possible. Public art need not be stand-alone pieces — many of the most successful works are those incorporated into the streetscape such as interesting paving patterns, benches, gates, railings, fences, streetlights, trash receptacles, and bike racks. Decorative tree grates can be made of wrought iron and, like art pieces, can be forged or created locally. Fountains are also excellent for creating central places for people to congregate and enjoy. The maintenance of these fixtures needs to be determined before their installation and will be an important consideration in picking the materials and design. Public art should be placed to avoid blocking the walkway, should be free from sharp corners or edges, should be ADA compliant, and should be placed to avoid creating vision obstructions from driveways, alleys or intersections. Tree grates should normally not be placed in the primary walking path unless they are friendly to people in wheelchairs and people wearing high heels.

Neighborhood Aesthetics

People want to walk in a pleasant environment and a clean neighborhood sends a message of pride and respect. When trash and vacant or dilapidated homes or buildings are commonplace, people may be discouraged from walking in your neighborhood. Not only do trash and dilapidated or vacant buildings make a neighborhood look ugly and intimidating, but, according to the National Training and Information Center, they can also:

  • Attract wild dogs and vermin
  • Signal to criminals that residents in this neighborhood do not care, which can be interpreted as an invitation for criminal activity
  • Provide places for criminals, gangs, and drug dealers to hang out
  • Attract vandalism and graffiti
  • Pose a fire hazard
  • Bring down the values of surrounding properties

A number of steps can be taken to keep your neighborhood clean and looking attractive.

Keep your neighborhood clean

Littering and graffiti are signs of disrespect to you, your neighbors, and your community. Keep sidewalks, streets, alleyways, backyards and lots clean at all times. In addition to keeping the area around your home clean, here are four simple ways that you can help keep your neighborhood clean:

  • Keep the sidewalk and the street in front of your home or business free of litter — Don't sweep trash, leaves, or lawn clippings into the street. Instead, put litter and yard waste into a garbage bag for disposal or composting.
  • Set an example — When you go on a walk around your neighborhood, take a small trash bag along with you. If you see a piece of trash, pick it up. You'll set a great example for your neighbors, especially the children in your neighborhood.
  • Get to know the local sanitation crew or officials — Personal contact with sanitation staff may be a good way to get a problem solved. Let them know you care and write a letter of praise to their superiors when they do a good job.
  • Alert the police of problem areas or when illegal dumping or graffiti occurs—If litter is repeatedly dumped in certain areas, notify the police and provide them with as much detail as possible about the problem and the problem area.

Organize a Neighborhood Clean-Up Day

If trash has been building up in your neighborhood for some time and has become a very noticeable problem, then a Neighborhood Clean-Up Day might be a good idea. A Neighborhood Clean-Up Day increases neighborhood awareness and creates a solid foundation to keep your community clean over a long period of time. Clean-Up Days also create a sense of community, friendship, and pride among the residents of your neighborhood. Follow these four steps to initiate a Clean-Up Day in your neighborhood:

Step 1

Get started by contacting your Homeowners or Neighborhood Association or another community-based organization. Offer to help organize a neighborhood clean-up day and get them excited about supporting this effort. Enlist the aid from near-by school or church youth groups, scouting organizations, business groups, or other community groups, or city/town officials. Form a clean-up committee of five or more neighborhood volunteers. Walk around the neighborhood and take detailed notes on the problems that you see—identify the clean-up boundaries and your clean-up needs.

If your neighborhood does not have a neighborhood organization, contact your city or town hall to find out how to start such a group in your community, or skip to the next step and really get the word out to your neighbors about what you want to do. Chances are that they will want to help out.

Step 2

Once you know what needs to be done, pick a date and a time for the Clean-Up Day. Most groups choose a weekend in the spring or the fall since this is when more people are available and the weather is best for outdoor clean-up work. The more neighborhood volunteers, the more successful the project, so get the word out about the event at your neighborhood association meetings and around your neighborhood early on. Use flyers, e-mail, and word of mouth to publicize the event around the neighborhood. Sign up interested volunteers and identify and contact local groups, businesses, and municipal departments for donations or assistance. Let everyone voice their opinions and suggest what needs to be done. Coordinate with sanitation officials to provide additional dumpsters and to haul away the collected trash at the end of the Clean-Up Day.

Step 3

When the Clean-Up Day Arrives, arrange for all volunteers to gather in a local park or public place and "kick off" your Clean-Up Day with a pep-talk. Divide volunteers up into teams for specific tasks. Give people a chance to meet and socialize with people they ordinarily would not. It is a good idea to assign people to tasks in their immediate area — if possible on their block. Supply the teams with plastic bags, recycling bags, gloves, and containers. Make sure they can distinguish between recyclable and non-recyclable materials. Try to provide refreshments to workers, hold a neighborhood block party after the clean-up, and ask a local movie theater to donate free passes in appreciation for the clean-up volunteers or hold a raffle with donated items from local businesses.

Step 4

Now that you have a beautiful neighborhood, don't let all your hard work go to waste! Ask your local officials to post official "No Dumping" signs in areas that are prone to dumping. You can also look into blocking vehicle access to areas that are prone to dumping by planting trees or installing other obstacles and you can request additional lighting for these areas if most dumping takes place at night. Organize or work with an existing Neighborhood Block Watch group to be on the lookout for illegal dumping. Work with police to have them patrol these areas around the times you think the illegal dumping occurs. Schedule regular clean ups on an ongoing basis throughout the year. Experience shows that two to three months are necessary to plan and organize a neighborhood Clean-Up Day.

Be sure your community has a littering ordinance

Contact your city or town hall and check to see if your community has an anti-littering ordinance. If so, see how and when it applies. If not, urge community officials to adopt an ordinance.

Develop a dumping prevention program

Illegal dumping involving truckloads of trash, furniture, mattresses, abandoned vehicles, or tree branches usually occurs in vacant lots or other areas and is a major problem in many communities throughout the United States. It raises significant concerns regarding public health and safety, property values, and quality of life. This problem can be very complicated, but the Environmental Protection Agency has developed a useful and comprehensive guidebook that addresses the problem.

According to the guidebook, an effective illegal dumping prevention program must be customized to address the factors contributing to the problem in a given community. Four important elements must be present for an illegal dumping prevention programs to be successful:

  1. They need to be founded on leadership and support by local officials.
  2. There must be cooperation among authorities, communities, and industry.
  3. An integrated approach must be taken when addressing the problem.
  4. Success must be publicized.

Please read the EPA's Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook for more information about how to start a dumping prevention program in your neighborhood.

Report abandoned buildings and vehicles to your local government

If you notice an abandoned building or vehicle in your neighborhood, report it to your city or town hall. In some cases, local officials may not know that a building has been abandoned. Some larger cities and most states have departments which deal specifically with abandoned homes and buildings. For instance, Phoenix's Neighborhood Preservation Division has the authority through a number of local ordinances to prosecute delinquent property owners who do not maintain their properties and fence off and demolish or rehab vacant and deteriorated properties if need be. Smaller cities may not have this type of program but there may be precedence for dealing with abandoned buildings in the community.

Abandoned vehicles should also be reported to the police or your city or town's neighborhood department or other municipal staff. Encourage your community to establish a hot-line or web site for reporting abandoned or inoperable vehicles and abandoned buildings. In most cases, by state law or local ordinance, abandoned vehicles can be reported after 48 or 72 hours and can result in fines for the owner and the removal and possible auctioning of the vehicle. Request a follow-up response to make sure that action is being taken by your community.

Sometimes the manpower for identifying and monitoring abandoned buildings is low or in short supply. If abandoned buildings are a widespread problem in your community, you may want to ask your city or town to obtain (or reallocate) building code enforcement resources.

Encourage funding resources and redevelopment plans

Abandoned buildings can remain vacant for several years depending on various legal and financial issues, including property ownership issues and the reasons for why the building was abandoned. In most cases, buildings which are abandoned eventually revert to the public domain and become the responsibility of the local government. If your local officials say there is not enough funds to redevelop the building or buildings, point them to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's listing of available funding opportunities. Ask your city or town officials to encourage private developers to redevelop abandoned buildings through the use of financial incentives and tax breaks.

In many cases, abandoned buildings will remain abandoned until the city or town has a plan for the property. Accordingly, encourage your city or town to work on development plans to promote walking and a sense of community in the area. The city or town will listen, especially if you have the support of your neighborhood organization or have the results of a neighborhood survey in hand.