What? Another study? Hasn't Fort Wayne moved way past the thinking-about-downtown-development stage? Isn't this more like the just-get-'er-done phase?
In many ways, yes. But the “Public Space, Public Life” study this fall and next spring will address an aspect of development that needs to be kept firmly in mind as we move forward.
As David Bennett, executive director of the Community Foundation of Fort Wayne, puts it: “How do we make our downtown more inviting, more welcoming and a better experience?”
The study, which will be conducted by the internationally known Gehl Institute, headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, will focus on how pedestrians and bicyclists use the city.
As Bennett noted, Arts United is wresting with some of those issues as they pertain to the city's arts campus. But with the riverfront and other development projects under way, the community needs to take a wider look at what can be done to make those projects amenable to those who want to stroll or bike to or among those new attractions.
As The Journal Gazette's Rosa Salter Rodriguez reported, the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission voted Monday to put $20,000 into the $240,000 study; the Fort Wayne-Allen County Planning Department will add another $20,000. The rest of the cost of the study – $200,000 – will be funded by the Knight Foundation, most of it through a partnership with the Community Foundation, Bennett said.
The Knight Foundation, which requires cities involved to help underwrite the work, has funded similar research in several cities the same size or smaller than Fort Wayne, including Lexington, Kentucky; Columbia, South Carolina; and Columbus, Georgia.
Lilly Weinberg, community foundations program director, oversees Knight's work in Fort Wayne and 17 other small and midsize communities. She has spent time in the city and is impressed by what is going on here. “I am a huge believer in the revitalization of downtown Fort Wayne,” Weinberg said in an interview Tuesday. But “as the city moves forward, there really should be an increasing emphasis on public spaces.”
Gehl interviews people who are using streets, sidewalks and gathering places, and it maps pedestrian patterns to discover and improve “the everyday social life of streets, parks and plazas and the spaces between buildings,” as its website puts it.
The researchers try to identify and improve “dead zones” where people may feel unsafe or uncomfortable walking. Such areas may be improved by better lighting, for instance. Already-popular routes and spots that are identified as hubs of activity may become even more popular with comfortable seating and areas where people can get out of the sun or seek shelter and warmth during the winter.
Researchers look at the effectiveness of bike lanes, sidewalks and crossings. “They may even recommend slowing down certain roads” to make areas safer for pedestrians, Weinberg said.
While downtown streets already seem plenty slow for drivers this construction season, research to make Fort Wayne more user-friendly for walkers and bikers may pair nicely with the brick-and-mortar efforts.