Iowa City named state's most "walkable" city

BY LUKE VOELZ | JULY 26, 2011 7:20 AM

Jessa Hansen/The Daily Iowan
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Iowa City was recently named as the most "walkable" city in the state, but some local officials said the city could better that ranking on a national front with less reliance on public transit and more population density in and near downtown.

Seattle research program Walk Score ranked each city in the survey released July 20 based on the accessibility of public amenities such as grocery stores and places of employment in individual neighborhoods, with an overall goal of reducing car use.

Despite a score of 53 points out of 100 on Walk Score's scale, Iowa City still falls as average on the list. Overall, the state's scores remain low compared with large cities in other states — Chicago ranked 74, and Milwaukee scored 60.

Johnson County Supervisior Janelle Rettig said that unlike Chicago or Milwaukee, Iowa City has significant nearby land left to grow toward. As long as the city continues expanding, its "walkability" will remain low. Yet once that land is developed, the city will likely begin adding high-rises and other factors that build population densities in walking distance of downtown.

"When the Plaza Tower went up with the library, that began to change the landscape downtown," Rettig said. "As more high-density towers come in, you'll see people living in concentrated areas. Now, it's still two miles to the grocery store."

Those two miles often demand transit, said University of Iowa urban and regional planning Professor John Fuller.

"To be walkable, a city needs to have not only local facilities and sidewalks but a concentrated population as well," Fuller said. "Compared with other cities, in the East in particular, Iowa doesn't have that concentration."

A less-dense population requires many Iowa City residents to use transit for accessing employment centers downtown and on campus. This, Fuller said, leads to a dependence on the city's numerous public-transit sources — the Cambus, Coralville and Iowa City bus systems.

"It's not especially surprising that Iowa City would do better than Des Moines or Cedar Rapids," Fuller said. "Des Moines is more spread out, and the employment centers are not concentrated as greatly as ours in the center."

The points Iowa City did obtain, said city planner Karen Howard, likely come from older neighborhoods near downtown. These communities were built for easy walking, with grid-based street patterns, small properties, and short city blocks. Newer neighborhoods toward the city's outskirts tend to be more spread out.

This, she said, creates high demand for neighborhoods near downtown.

"There are a lot of families competing with students to live close to where they work downtown," she said.

Though running errands in Iowa City may not be as foot-friendly as in the larger Midwest cities, Howard said, urban developers try to design new neighborhoods as close to amenities as possible.

"We do try to think where neighborhood community areas are in relation to where new neighborhoods are," she said. "We try to build street connections, pedestrian connections, and trails that connect all those places."

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