Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Northern California Tour: Freedom Park Road

Two weeks ago, I began recounting a recent daytrip I took through Northern California.  My goal was to look, however briefly, at destinations that I hoped would offer urbanist insights.  I began my day in Suisun City, a city center of well-conceived urban redevelopment and a personal favorite.  I continued with a stop in Woodland, checking on how the burgeoning big box district was affecting the attractive but languishing historical downtown.

Today, I’ll describe the next destination on my meandering route and the reason I conceived the daytrip, a recently reconstructed road in North Highlands, near Sacramento.

Sacramento County received an award from the local chapter of the American Planning Association for the redesign and reconstruction of Freedom Park Road within the former McClellan Air Force Base.  The grounds for the award are evident.  Wide and comfortable sidewalks.  Roundabouts in place of stop signs.  Stormwater runoff routed into vegetated swales.  Energy-efficient lighting.  A pavement mix design that included recycled tires.  All the elements of an environmentally-sensitive road design.

That is, all the elements of an environmentally-sensitive road design except the most important one.  Walkability.  Freedom Park Road has fine sidewalks, wide, without obstructions, and safely set back from the vehicle lanes.  But during the fifteen minutes I spent visiting the street, not one pedestrian came by.  None.

Nor is the reason surprising.  There are few destinations along the street.  Residential developments front on the street, an apartment complex to the south and small-lot single-family homes to the north.  But there’s virtually nowhere to go for anyone who lives in either.

Retail is usually the key destination.  At the east end of Freedom Park Road, where it terminates at an arterial, there are strip malls on both corners, but they‘re half-empty and moribund.

Otherwise, there’s a park that includes casual play and organized sports areas.  But casual play parks sometimes struggle to attract users and it’s likely the many of organized sports participants arrive by car from points of origin far beyond Freedom Park Road.

There’s also an aerospace museum that I’ve visited and enjoyed.  But realistically, how many times can people visit the same museum?  Perhaps twice a year?

Overall, it’s not surprising that the only folks I saw along Freedom Park Road, other than the drivers of
passing cars, were a handful of teenagers sitting at the entry to the apartments, looking at the world through bored, half-closed eyes.

If we use Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City” for its walkability punchlist, the shortfalls are further highlighted.  Safety?  Yes.  Comfort?  So it appeared to me.  Interest?  Not much.  Most of the uses are not visually appealing, set far back from the street, or both.  Usefulness?  Nope, barring the occasional purchase that can be made at the struggling strip malls or the infrequent desire to play on a swing, there’s not much useful on Freedom Park Road.  With all four points needed to for a street to be walkable, Freedom Park Road falls well short.

I understand why the APA gave an award for the road reconstruction.  I’m sure that design touched on many of the hot buttons in environmental design.  But the fact remains that virtually every street in downtown Sacramento, by facilitating walkability, provides more environmental benefit than Freedom Park Road.

Don’t misunderstand my point.  I’m not saying that vegetated swales and energy-efficient lights are bad road elements.  Instead, I agree that they are very good road elements.  But the ultimate good road element, the essential road element, is walkable urbanism and if we aren’t encouraging urbanism, we’re only chipping at the fringe of the environmental challenge.

In his book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman argues that many Americans, faced with the environmental challenges of the 21st century, are going only as far as a “green party”.  Rather than making fundamental changes in their lifestyles, they’re setting out the recycling can, replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs, throwing a handful of confetti, and carrying on with life as they’ve always known it. 

He makes a good point.  All of us, me included, can and should do more to face the challenges of our time.  And passing out an award for a road that doesn’t address walkability, the keystone of environmental sustainability, is a good example of a premature and unjustified green party.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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