A couple of folks have recently contacted me about the challenges of living a more car-free life in places still oriented around cars. They noted that it is often easier to hop into an automobile rather than to walk home in the rain from a library with an armload of books or to wrestle a pair of grocery bags onto a bus.
I agree with them. We’ve done a fine job of building a drivable world, so good that driving a car is the most efficient and convenient way to do most tasks, as is evident from the frequent traffic congestion and absence of parking. Indeed, if one ignores the congestion and parking problems, while also disregarding the looming threat of climate change and the deep hole of municipal debt from sprawling further than we were willing to financially support, we’ve built a darned good world.
But we can’t ignore those inconvenient facts. Unwinding from a drivable suburban world will be a reality of the next decades. And we should be praising those who, like those who have contacted me, are the early adopters.
(The perspective here is that the shift toward more walkability is inevitable. The goal of my writing isn’t to convince people of that inevitability. Time will take care of that regardless of any words I can offer. Instead, it’s to convince folks to get onboard more quickly because the longer we wait to see the obvious, the more distress, environmental, physical, and financial, we leave for the following generations. I have affection for many of the younger folks around me. I want to leave them as little of our mess as possible.)
There are many strategies that can be implemented toward making this fundamental change in our world, but one of the best is to build small amenities that can be experienced and enjoyed without the use of cars, implicitly showing the upside of a more walkable world.
I recently became aware of a North Bay opportunity that would conform well to that strategy.
Many residents of Boyes Hot Springs, north of Sonoma along Highway 12, have long bemoaned the absence of an open-air community meeting place, a plaza for farmers markets and summer evening concerts. Earlier visions for a town plaza died when the State of California ended their redevelopment program, but a new vision of a public plaza has recently arisen.
With construction underway on curbs, gutters, and sidewalks through the community, itself giving the potential to increase walkability, a short length of Boyes Boulevard will be cut off, ending its traffic function. Rather than leaving a 200-foot, single-lane, single-exit parking lot, a pair of civic boosters began beating the drum for a plaza in the space. Sonoma County took note, agreeing to provide funds for an initial assessment.
Intrigued by what I read, I visited the site on recent summer day. I was immediately charmed, not only by the site, but also by the surrounding circumstances.
The curb, gutter, and sidewalk work can serve to bring more people to the plaza site.
Downtown business repainting, although not welcomed by some, should add character to the community, perhaps inducing tourists, who would otherwise hurry through on their way to wineries further up the Sonoma Valley, to stop and to partake of what Boyes Hot Springs has to offer.
The nearby residential neighborhoods, both older and more newly constructed, feature homes on relatively small lots, with narrow frontages, bringing more local folks within walking distance of the possible plaza.
Perhaps most interestingly, the plaza would be only a short distance from the Sonoma Mission Resort and Spa. I can foresee a well-designed plaza becoming a mingling place between the spa visitors and local residents, sharing music and local foodstuffs. (Although I can also foresee hotel management being grumpy about the possibility of late evening music only a few hundred feet from expensive guest rooms.)
Are all these outcomes certain? Not even close. Good design, extensive community coordination, and thoughtful space scheduling are all essential elements. But the possibility is there and possibilities are always exciting.
In the best StrongTowns tradition, I will note that it would great if the community could build the plaza itself, with volunteers adding and subtracting elements until the right combination was achieved. But I’ll also note that many elements, from legally vacating the street to assuring compliance with codes and assuaging the concerns of the resort and spa, mandate a role for county government. Hopefully, a good and effective balance of government support and community involvement can be found.
I’m excited by the possibility of a town plaza in Boyes Hot Springs, perhaps almost as excited as the local residents should be.
Shortly after my return from CNU 23, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas, I culled through my notes to offer various short insightful snippets from the proceedings. For my next post, I’m going to dig into my notes one more time for few final odds and ends.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)