It was a hot summer day in Downtown Grand Junction, Colorado, as a small group of Community Builders team members gathered in the Downtown Development Authority offices. We were in town for stakeholder meetings; an important step before writing the plan of development for Downtown Grand Junction.
Having recently joined the Community Builders team, I reflected on all that I had learned during the day’s meetings while enjoying a mid-afternoon cookie. The office dog, Louis, laid peacefully about the conference room, just as he had all day. Once a stray on the streets of Denver, Louis had come to terms with a peaceful lifestyle. But for reasons still unknown, Louis decided to escape out the office door, only to run further and faster when his name was called. This event could only be explained as an opportunity to re-live his “street dog days.”
When Louis escaped, I instinctively ran after him—a painful decision for which the blisters on my feet would later remind me. I chased Louis out the office door, through Whitman Park, and up the 5th Street bridge.
If you’re familiar with Grand Junction (“GJ” as it’s often called), you most likely just cringed at my dog-chasing path. We had just lost a dog in a heavily trafficked area of Downtown—an area that is poorly connected and lacking in walkability.
Contrary to what my last sentence may have implied, my duties at Community Builders involve anything but urban planning. Specializing in digital media and marketing, I’m still learning the basic concepts that are discussed in the office every day. That’s why losing Louis was perhaps the best thing to happen to me in my first month working here (and to Louis, too, who was fed lots of pepperoni by onlookers during his 6-hour excursion). It was the most interactive way of learning about the urban planning term “connectivity.”
Connectivity describes how easily pedestrians, cars, bikes, etc. can get from one place to another via transportation networks. Systems such as streets, sidewalks, trails, and transit make up a transportation network. The better these systems are linked, and the easier it is for people to reach their destination, the stronger the area’s connectivity. Good connectivity provides safe and accessible multimodal routes.
Now, take everything I just said about what makes good connectivity, think of the opposite, and you’re left with the Rail District in Downtown GJ. A heavy industrial area with little-to-no pedestrian-friendly routes. This is emphasized by Highway 50—a heavily trafficked street that disperses fast-moving cars into Downtown.
If you picture me in my nice dress pants chasing a dog up this highway, you may want to laugh, and I wouldn’t blame you. But if you consider how dangerous this route is for pedestrians, and how difficult it is to chase a dog through railroads and disconnected streets, it addresses a real problem.
One-way streets (which can be found throughout Downtown GJ) leave little room for economic development in a downtown. We often think of streets as just a way to get from one destination to another, and in that rational, one-way streets can certainly do the trick. However, one-way streets can have a negative affect on the surrounding people and businesses.
One-ways lead to faster moving traffic, produce more noise, and create a less-safe environment for pedestrians and bikers. The cars aren’t stopping, or even enjoying, the downtown area, and they don’t promote walkability—a key component to an economically viable space.
When communities design their streets for cars over people, connectivity is sometimes forgotten.
Physically, connectivity allows people easy and safe access to the places they want to go, and to cool places they didn’t know existed. The economy benefits when people feel safe and destinations are easier to reach by multimodal transportation—and both promote connectivity. Foot traffic is a primary economic driver for downtowns, and you don’t get that without connectivity.
Socially, connectivity promotes face-to-face interaction that isn’t possible in cars, making the environment feel safer and friendlier, all the while giving pedestrians a more engaging experience. In a town like GJ, with a distinct culture that emphasizes outdoor recreation and biking, experience matters to people. Yes, you can make a place walkable and bike-able, but it’s the culture and vibrancy that makes a Downtown a great place to be.
Lack of connectivity is the heart of many problems Downtown GJ—and many other communities—are currently facing. Connectivity on its own won’t solve everything, but for future dog-chasers, it sure would make it easier and safer.