This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Active Living Workshop

On Wednesday the Jasper Foundation hosted an Active Living Workshop in the Carnegie Center. There were three presenters, one from a non profit called Health by Design and two from the Indiana State Department of Health. I was not sure what the basic message of the workshop would be, but the first speaker quickly explained that the goal of the workshop was to promote physical activity built into everyday life. The built world, the way we construct our towns and cities, affects our behavior and thus our physical activity. Some ways of designing cities and towns discourage physical activity while other ways encourage it. The goal of the presenters was to encourage design that made healthy choices the easy choices.

In practice this goal means that we need to encourage more walking and biking and less use of the automobile. For many years roads have been designed with only one goal, to make use of the automobile as easy as possible. In accomplishing this goal, life got harder for pedestrians and those who ride bikes. (If you want some local examples, consider the ease or difficulty of walking to Fountain Stone Theater or the new primary school.) We were introduced to a number of new concepts that are hot topics among urban planners: bump outs, curb extensions, pinch points, complete streets, z-crossings, calming traffic, and parklets.

You might think that a rural county like Jasper County would score high in measures of health and fitness, but the data, which you can see here, suggest that we are not especially good nor especially bad. Another website mentioned gives walk scores for any town in the U.S. Rensselaer ranks as "somewhat walkable."

After each of the speakers had a chance to address the group, we took a walk to see some of the good and bad things we could observe in Rensselaer. We walked down to Lincoln Avenue, then up College to Washington, then around Milroy Park and over the Potawatomie Park bridge to the Court House and then back to the Carnegie Center. We stopped frequently to discuss what we saw, and on the corner of Washington and Van Rensselaer formed a human bumpout. (One of the things the presenters liked about Rensselaer was our two grids, the north-south grid and the grid aligned with the river, which I still find confusing. They thought it gave the town character.)
A bumpout or a curb extension (I had never heard the terms before) narrows the street at intersections by moving the curb out. This makes the crossing shorter for pedestrians and slows auto traffic. The presenters had statistics indicating that it reduced accidents.

After lunch, the workshop continued with group activities. We divided in groups and on large maps of Rensselaer indicated which sections of roads and intersections we thought dangerous for pedestrians and walkers as well as roads that could be improved for bicycles and pedestrians. The three groups came to similar results. Then one of the presenters talked about what other cities and towns are doing to design for for active living--I was overwhelmed with the amount of information, but did find some of the ideas of street design interesting. (Center turn lanes can greatly increase the efficiency of a street--I see an example in Monticello where the road from the city to Indiana Beach has been reconstructed with a center turn lane.)

Finally, we divided again into groups and looked at specific areas--schools, parks, walking, land use, and biking. By this time the number of people still in the workshop had dwindled to about half of those who had started in the morning. One thing we were asked to do was think of three quick and easy improvements we could make in our area. My group looking at biking and walking concluded that the easiest thing would be to increase the number of bike racks available.

We will get some followup in the next few weeks and months. It will be interesting to see if anything concrete results from the workshop.

(One more website--Rensselaer has its Drive a Tractor to School Day. Other schools have a Walk to School Day or a Bike to School Day. International Walk to School Day is October 8. What does it say about us if walking or biking to school is an annual event rather than a daily one?  In 1969 48% of children walked or biked to school; in 2009 only 13% did.)

1 comment:

Jim Earnest said...

I have said for years that a center turn lane is greatly needed on south college from Grove street to or even past the college. From our mouths to INDOT'S ears.