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Urban Development

Plan B

How a community's fight for a slower road brought their town back to life

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

In the mid-2000s, the New York State Department of Transportation decided that in order to improve the main street of a little village called Hamburg, they would narrow the sidewalks and add another lane of traffic. The economy of the Rust Belt town (which, according to residents, once resembled It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls) was already on the decline. Residents feared the road widening through the village's heart would be its final blow.

So they gathered together and, with the help of walkability expert Dan Burden, put together an alternative plan for the street. The plan included narrowed vehicle lanes to slow traffic instead of speeding it up; bike lanes on either side of the street; new crosswalks with sidewalk extensions to make the crossing shorter; and more trees, not fewer, like the proposed state plan would have seen. When it came to a vote, the community chose the local plan four to one over the state’s.

And when they implemented it, something miraculous happened. Occupancy on the street went up: the number of building permits rose from 15 in 2005 to 96 in 2010. Property values along the strip more than doubled. Music festivals, outdoor movie nights, a soapbox derby and other lively public events started springing up, and the street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town came back to life. And at the same time, car crashes and injuries have dropped by over 60 percent.

8 80 Cities

Hamburg, N.Y. is just one example of many North American towns choosing a new path for their streets—and their entire communities. As one local resident put it to The New York Times: “If you build a place for cars, it will be a gathering place for cars. If it’s built for people, it will be a gathering place for people.”