For my planning activism with the Greater Waterville Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, I have been looking into a lot of crash data, trying to learn about the nature of accidents in and around Waterville and how they could be mitigated.
I happened upon a story that I didn’t expect to find, but did. Waterville is looking into fixing a 5 way intersection at the corner of Western Ave., Lincoln Ave., and 1st Rangeway. The intersection can be a bit difficult to navigate, but in looking at the crash data for the Waterville area, it appears that the intersection is quite safe compared to other parts of town (Interstate Interchanges & Downtown).
While the perception is that the intersection is unsafe, what generally tends to happen is that people navigating that intersection approach it with some level of hesitation and a heightened awareness. Because everyone knows it is a “bad” intersection, it is made safe because people treat it as if it were a place to be respected. In the list of projects for the City of Waterville and Maine’s DOT is a redo of this “unsafe” intersection. While the improvements may in fact change the perception of the intersection as an “unsafe” place, the data suggests that this is a gross miss-allocation of resources.
Waterville has a downtown business environment that is fighting like hell to remain a viable center of business activity. People take economic risks here by opening up businesses, the downtown development group spends considerable energy building up the downtown, but what is clear to me is that the street network that supports downtown isn’t doing an adequate job.
By the numbers, a two block section of downtown has had 84 accidents in the last 8 years. Most of those are rear-end/sideswipes between people backing out of diagonal stall parking were rear-ended or parallel parkers were sideswiped. As a planner, I know the value of downtown on-street parking to downtown businesses. People need to get in, conduct a transaction, and leave. Eliminating on-street parking is a looser for these businesses and will make traffic even faster due to greater roadway widths. Stories here and here.
What is needed however is a traffic calmed environment that will be a more inviting place for patrons of downtown businesses, families spending a weekend strolling along the shop lined streets, and as a result will slow traffic down, leading to less crashes.
Cities levy taxes to pay for things people need. Some of those things are schools, parks, streets, police & fire protection. Understandably, nobody really likes taxes, so cities try their best to keep taxes low. In a town like Waterville, in what is considered a service center town, taxes can be a bit higher. This is largely due to having more hospitals, churches, non-profit organizations, judicial buildings, schools and colleges, than many of the surrounding communities. These places don’t pay property taxes and that is ok, because they bring people to the community for those services and the jobs they represent.
It can be argued then that service center towns will have a much more difficult time attracting residents who use tax rates as a measure of attractiveness to settle in a particular town. One solution to that problem is to focus on adding more value per acre of taxable property, thereby reducing the property tax rate and the burden on a towns citizens.
While increasing the density of value may be a difficult political sell in some respects, it represents a solution to a vexing problem of overtaxing a tax-weary citizenry. The map below is a simple parcel map of Waterville, ME that shows the value of each parcel in terms of its area (value/acre). The most valuable parcels of the town are primarily the downtown (red parcels), which also happens to be the most dense part of town.
Considering that infrastructure and other city services become less expensive as density increases (less roadway to pave, less patrolling needed, etc.), it begs the question of why we create zoning codes that promote low density development? If residential housing is restricted to 4 homes/acre (.25 acre lots) and the street that those houses reside on costs the same as a street that is zoned for 6 houses/acre (.17 acre lots), which street has a better chance of being supported by the tax revenue of the properties on the street?
When we look at downtown, you note that most parcels are either red or dark orange, representing value/acre at over $1M or $750K respectively. These represent breadwinners for the cities coffers and probably subsidize much of the low density areas infrastructure costs. Not that downtown development is right for every part of town, but any chance a city has to increase density will increase value on a per acre basis.
As a planner, I feel it is my responsibility to find solutions to how cities develop that cater to people of the broadest possible political persuasions. Reducing tax rates while maintaining a high level of city services appeals to a broad coalition. Reducing our ecological footprint by taking up less space is also appealing to many.
One of the most important things about bike and pedestrian infrastructure is that it needs to go somewhere. As important as recreation may be, taking cycling and walking to the next level by fostering active mobility for real travel to meaningful destinations is key to building a healthy and sustainable community. Waterville is ripe for just such a network because everything in Waterville is remarkably close by. The map below is a topo map that show just how close people are to downtown Waterville. Within 2 miles of downtown are a number of major work centers, Inland Hospital, MaineGeneral’s 2 campus’, Downtown Waterville, plus Colby and Thomas College Campus locations. Just outside of that is the Hutamaki paper plant straddling the Waterville/Fairfield town line.
Below is a thematic map of work centers in Waterville, that shows where the jobs are located in town. What I wanted to show was the different places people in town work and how close those areas are. In Waterville, nearly 20% of people work in town or in neighboring Winslow across the river. The map was created with a census product called: On the Map, and can display commute data in a number of ways. For this map, I just focused on where jobs were located.
While I didn’t want to focus on towns outside of Waterville for the purpose of a bike boulevard network, it is important to consider the connections to neighboring towns when working on a network design. This map has only two connections, one to Winslow across the Two Cent Bridge, and to Fairfield via Dummond Ave. heading north.
As we get closer to working on bike routes through Waterville in the public participation process, it will be important to have an accurate understanding of where people want to go. The above map is merely my perspective on some meaningful routes and might not capture all the desired destinations. What these routes do however, is focus on streets that are bike-able and some destinations that I would want to have available if I chose to bike to them.
How do you encourage people to walk more? Someone in Waterville proposed a project where we create walking routes around town that head out from the library. I have been helping out with some mapping on the project and hope to include some of the work in another project of mine. The map below is an example map that families can check out at the library, pick a route and go for a walk.
Personally, I walk a lot. Partly because I have a dog, and partly because I like taking my time getting places and don’t mind a stroll for real life activities. I am probably in the minority here and don’t value my time the same way as others do, counting my walks as time well spent. I also enjoy being able to experience life at a human scale. I wrote a bit about a great post I read that talks about cycling and its importance in seeing the community as it is, and not at 50mph. You really get to know a place well when you walk or cycle through it.
I just wonder what it would take to get people to exchange one trip a week in a car for one on foot or bike? Will high gas prices do it? Diabetes? I don’t know. For now I am going to work with people on projects that encourage walking as a form of recreation and transportation. I want to mimic the efforts made in Raleigh, NC at constructing signs indicating distances to destinations. Those signs were removed by the city. Protest ensued and the signs were put back up. Change takes time and maybe a bit of encouragement.
Coming to a library near you Watervillians. Get out and take a walk. Combine it with a trip!
What does it mean to be either a historically recognized or a historically significant place in the context of planning; especially when that place is no longer tied to the historical conditions that created it? Waterville Maine’s, South End Neighborhood is just the sort of place where the deindustrialization experienced in the Post-World War II era has left a place behind.
I wrote a paper for a class on the Waterville South End Neighborhood, and in that paper I spent a some amount of time discussing the historical significance of the neighborhood and why it is where it is, what happened to it, and how does that shape it for the future. The South End owes much to it’s water powered industrial past, but how much of that past will play into the present? In terms of planning for a future where energy is much more expensive, a place created before the advent of the automobile will be poised to do well in that future. The dense working class neighborhood of Waterville’s South End may be considered a model for future development, as well as a place for emphasizing redevelopment in an energy limited future. The easily walkable streets characterized by the dense arrangement of the built environment may once again prosper at the intersection of resource limitations (namely petroleum) and climate change.
The adjacent Kennebec River once played a significant role in powering the industrial fortunes of Waterville and its cross river neighbor, Winslow. Perhaps the already damned rivers will once again be responsible for generating much of the power needs for the citizens, industrial processes, and fortunes of these towns again. At one time the Hathaway Shirt Factory was at the heart of Waterville’s economic might. Times changed of course as firms focused more emphasis on labor costs as the criteria for profitability. This ultimately led to the deindustrialization of the region, and much of the United States as firms seek every economic advantage they can to remain competitive in a global market. Places that succeed in adapting to a changing economic landscape will be places that succeed. Places that don’t will suffer, and ultimately wither away. It is my hope that Waterville, and especially the much beleaguered South End Neighborhood will adapt, and thrive once again. This will involve creative reuse of existing infrastructure, wise use of resources, and a community effort to imagine a place that can roll with the punches and adapt to a rapidly evolving landscape.
Below is a snippet from that paper regarding the historical context. I wish I had spoken more to the role that the urban design of the late 19th century would play in an energy limited world. Alas I didn’t but here is what I wrote:
The Waterville South End Neighborhood was historically and still is the modest working class neighborhood of Waterville. The South End was originally home to French Canadian families that came to the area to work in the mills and factories located along the Kennebec and Messolanskee waterways. These waterways were originally integral to providing these burgeoning industries of the early industrial period with mechanical power, which eventually became electrical power, both allowing the region to prosper. These mills and factories focused on numerous industrial sectors important to Maine’s economy at the time, but had the strongest relationship to locally sourced wood harvests, abundant throughout the state of Maine. The locational advantage provided by a steady supply of power, close proximity to forestry resources, and a waterway and its’ abutting flat railroad grade along that waterway, allowed the region and Waterville to prosper greatly in the early American industrial landscape. The South End Neighborhood as a result, prospered as well.The homes in the South End Neighborhood are modest in nature and reflect the working class roots of the community. The spatial layout of the neighborhood reflects the era in which it was built, harkening back to the days before the automobile. The neighborhood was built with a considerably dense layout, and that density is currently reflected in the housing stock seen today. Many of these closely spaced houses have been neglected in recent times, which paint a telling picture of the change in fortunes for the residents of the neighborhood. While the economic fortunes for Waterville have fluctuated throughout the last 50 years, the South End Neighborhood’s fortunes have been in a steady decline. The Town of Waterville is home to two colleges, three regional medical centers, and serves as a regional hub for retailing. This service sector economy has been largely shielded from the Post-World War II deindustrialization experienced in the United States. However, the South End Neighborhood, whose residents were largely dependent on the manufacturing sector for wage labor, saw their stable lower-middle class working lifestyles decline rapidly, as manufacturing companies sought new locational advantages, in cheap labor. No longer was the proximity to raw materials and water powered locations key components to profitability. With the introduction of cheaper fossil fuel based power, and along with that cheap transportation, products could be manufactured anywhere in the world, with inexpensive labor being the key to profitability for many firms focused on labor intensive manufacturing. These changes hit the Waterville South End Neighborhood especially hard.As people adapted to these changing economic trends, many residents sought opportunities elsewhere. The strong social fabric that once bound the neighborhood together was coming unraveled. This resulted in a severe decline in the condition of housing and an uptick in crime that has further eroded the community. However, fortunes have a tendency to change and in the South End Neighborhood, they have been slowly changing for the better.The neighborhood has a strong group of concerned citizens who are playing a key role in the revival of the neighborhood. They have formed the South End Neighborhood Association (SENA), and have been active agents of change in the neighborhood. The neighborhood has also seen a resurgence in community organizations that have based their operations in the South End, taking advantage of commercial and institutional space that was vacated during the neighborhoods decline. These will play a key role in helping to shape the changes that the neighborhood needs in order to be prosperous again.