Walkability Envisioned for Washingtonville
By Eugenia Moskowitz
While “walkability,” or the ease with which pedestrians and bicyclists can move through the village, has been a key element in Placemaking since its inception just over a year ago, Mayor Joe Bucco has been a proponent of walkability for the village since his first “vision for the village” presented upon being elected as trustee two years ago. As the Placemaking movement gained traction and grew to involve all aspects of village life, and as grants have come in, the walkability factor has played an ever bigger role in Washingtonville’s future.
Last fall, public health, planning, and transportation consultant and former host of the PBS television series “America’s Walking” Mark Fenton did a walk-audit through Washingtonville where he pinpointed key elements that would create an inviting character to the village and increase public health by allowing “free-range” or unstructured exercise as part of residents’ daily life, especially children, who currently battle an obesity issue, and seniors, who are often on medications related to health issues stemming from lack of simple daily exercise.
Asked to envision the best activities his audience remembers from childhood, people said street ball, bike riding, climbing trees, go-karts, and playing in creeks and fields. Everyone agreed that their fondest memories were of unscheduled activities where girls and boys of different ages, with no uniforms or fees necessary, made their own play, and adults were usually not present. Most of us, he said, were free-range kids who learned to navigate the world via their own devices. While he is not espousing being so hands-off that children are unsafe, he said we are currently “marinated in fear” about safety and are thus raising sedentary unhealthy kids even as we drive them to their sports practices.
Walkability, he said, means that physical activity is not structured, the spaces in your village or town lend themselves to exercise taking place on-the-fly. You don’t have to join a gym or buy a special outfit; you incorporate moderate physical activity into your daily life as you go about your business. A town should reward people for being walkers and cyclists, instead of taking their car, and this can be done by building town structures closer to the sidewalks with the parking lot in the rear, having pit stops along sidewalks with shade trees and benches, and allowing businesses to place apartments on the second stories of shops as they renovate, so that pedestrian customers are immediately present, which in turn help businesses thrive.
“To build healthy communities,” Fenton said, “we have to create the public spaces that invite healthy communities.” Isn’t community health up to each individual as personal responsibility? Is there any evidence that “if we build it, they will come?” Fenton says yes, there are strong market indicators and economic incentives that point to these changes being economically beneficial as well as good for public health. Public policy and infrastructure invite the behaviors we want. Mixed land use means retail, housing, shopping, churches, schools, playgrounds, the post office, and multi-use pathways and trails for walking and biking create a community where we “live, work, eat, play, and pray” in the same area, inviting visitors to move there to start their families. If you make your town center a place not only for visitors but for inhabitants as a great place to live, your town ends up a destination center. If Placemaking events such as the spring Easter Bonnet Parade and the fall Witchingtonville Festival invite people in from the outside, good walkability and infrastructure can bring them here when they seek to relocate. Warwick has used its Applefest to draw people and increase its economic tax base. Placemaking organizers said Washingtonville’s upward spiral can also happen in the same way with its fall festival.
Fenton, who did race-walking (later known as speed-walking) at the 1984 Summer Olympics, said that places like the AutoZone and Dunkin Donuts can be improved by planting shade trees and putting benches along a slightly widened sidewalk-and-grass strip. Curb cuts leading into and out of those parking lots need to be better marked so pedestrians aren’t blindsided. The McLaughlin Square in the village center by the old police watchman’s hut and the Christmas tree can be blocked off for special events, leading people to envision a better parking situation there for the future. He mentioned a gazebo, canoe launch, and possible fishing area by the flood lots, now named Sewell Community Park, across from the middle school — actually already in the works by the current village board under Mayor Bucco; the park was leveled and graded last fall.
Another idea Fenton had was to officially encourage walkers to access the middle and high schools via the unofficial trail leading from behind St. Mary’s Church past Betty’s and onto the school grounds by formalizing that trail and using the St. Mary’s parking lot as a drop-off site, thus reducing the amount of traffic and congestion on Main Street. Bike lanes and bike racks at the middle and high schools would encourage bicycling to and from school in the good weather months. “Every movie you see that takes place in small town America,” one attendee said, “has rows of bikes in front of the high school. Why don’t we? When I was a kid, my ten-speed took me everywhere. We have a flat center of town, kids should be riding to school.” A bike lane along Route 94 was suggested using the kind of grant money that other towns and villages have gotten.
The next Placemaking meeting will be Mar 12 at 7:00 p.m. at the high school. Village board members are accessible and encourage contact. The public is welcome to get involved in making the future of Washingtonville bright.
CAPTION: The village’s sidewalks on the north side of West Main Street are fragmented by parking lot entrances. In some places, there are only zebra stripes. This picture shows a pedestrian walking towards the high school as a car emerges just behind her from the AutoZone parking lot. The south side of West Main Street has no sidewalks at all until near the vicinity of the traffic light. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz)