A Downtown Pioneer’s 10-Toe Express

Marsha Rood’s personal account of her move to Downtown Pasadena. “BECOMING HUMAN IN THE CITY”

More people are on the way.  Sustainability is a necessity.  The population is getting older with many wanting to live in smaller homes.  Yet even as household size shrinks, most of us still use the car as our primary way of getting around.

Is more density the solution for our cities? The jury is still out.

Over the past 20 years, we in Pasadena have built a city that many national observers point to as a livable city where density works.  But there has been a significant pushback against density in the recent Pasadena General Plan citizen outreach meetings. Does density, by definition, mean more traffic? Or can density be done well so that many uses are accessible in a compact and walkable environment?

Using my feet – my “ten-toe express” – I would like to offer some personal perspectives, based upon my experience living in Pasadena’s Central District.

In 2002, I decided to rent out my house in the San Rafael Hills in West Pasadena and move to a condominium at South Madison and Cordova, near the geographic center of Pasadena’s Central District. I had started a home-based consulting practice at that time and wanted to be near office services and places to meet clients and potential clients. Besides, there were a lot more things to do in Pasadena’s Central District. In a sense, I wanted my community to become an extension of my home and office.

Did I use my car less and walk more? In May, June and July of this year, I kept track of the miles that I drove or walked vs. the miles I would have driven from my San Rafael Hills home to do the same things. To my surprise, I reduced my driving miles from 1,081 to 244, a reduction of over 77%.  Better yet, I walked 170 miles and lost nine pounds just going about my daily life.  I did not walk out of guilt or to be “environmentally correct”.  I walked because it was simply the best way to get to where I was going – I was already “parked”.

The places that I typically visit in the Central District – Old Pasadena,  Paseo Colorado,  Playhouse District and South Lake Avenue – are all less than a one-mile, one-way trip from my home.  There are many different places to go in a very compact area such as grocery stores, special events,  community meetings, restaurants, movies, live theater, comedy clubs, my church, bookstores, doctors, the pharmacy, parks, City Hall, shoe repair, tailors, office supply stores, two Gold Line stations, ARTS bus stops and near-by friends.

I can make one trip on foot count for multiple destinations. Because the Central District has a connected transportation network and grid-pattered streets, a mistake in direction can be quickly corrected.   Important for a walker, the Central District has good pedestrian amenities and, for the most part, traditional human-scale architecture with pedestrian-oriented uses. When walking, an important benefit is having impromptu encounters with people I know without having to arrange schedules.

My personal experience of living in a “walkable” community is not that unusual.  According to the Local Government Commission, 75% of vehicle trips in California are less than one mile. In communities that have pedestrian-friendly compact environments, something that local governments can foster, the commission found that people are four times more likely to walk to their destinations than to drive.

In addition, the commission found that in more compact areas with many uses, people who live within walking distance are likely to support near-by stores.  This is critical to independent/unique businesses that are more dependent than are chains upon local patronage.   Walking as a “serious” way to get around needs attention.

In terms of more pedestrian city comforts in the Central District, we could do better.  The important things for me include more pedestrian signs showing how much time to various destinations; building the right things in the right place, thereby lessening traffic impacts; speed limit signs, traffic calming and marked cross walks; pedestrian signs to the Gold Line stations; wider and leveler sidewalks on pedestrian streets; more street trees, trash receptacles and pedestrian lighting;  more places for people to sit; more “outdoor rooms” and parks for community and social gatherings; more performance and temporary public art that relates to location and installation public art that people can understand; dog “pooper-scooper” bag dispensers, and more restaurants with places for unrelated people to sit together (think “Cheers”).

As we look forward, we should encourage walking (and reduced car trips) by requiring that new buildings relate to and engage the pedestrian, focusing more attention to what happens at the ground level. Important for pedestrian connectivity is slowing traffic speeds on major streets such as Union, Green, Cordova, Del Mar and California to allow pedestrians to cross safely. In terms of public transit, the Gold Line stations in the middle of the 210 Freeway need to be made much more people-friendly.

The more I experience life in the Central district, the more I believe that the key to understanding what makes a good place is the human body – how we move, how our senses work, how we experience space and how we interact with people.   What choices will we make?  Many times the solution lies in how we define the problem.  A good beginning is to put people and the “ten-toe express” first.

This article was originally published in the Pasadena Star-News “Perspectives” Section on Sunday, December 13, 2009.

Marsha V. Rood, FAICP, is Principal of Urban Reinventions, a company devoted to creating mixed use, pedestrian and transit-based livable communities.  Ms. Rood served as the City of Pasadena’s Development Administrator from 1982 – 2000 and was responsible for a nationally recognized program of redevelopment, housing and economic revitalization for Pasadena. She more recently served as the Community Development Director of the City of Culver City.  In 2003, the California State Senate, the State Assembly and the Pasadena Museum of History honored her as a “Living History Maker in the City of Pasadena.  As part of her community work, Ms. Rood serves as Vice President of Women At Work.  She also is a member of the Pasadena General Plan Update Advisory Committee, various revitalization committees for the Playhouse District Association and the Rotary Club of Pasadena’s program committee. Ms Rood serves as a Trustee for the Pasadena Presbyterian Church and is a recent Board member of Mothers’ Club Family Learning Center. Ms. Rood holds a B. A. degree from Stanford University, a Masters in Planning degree, and has completed PhD course work at the University of Southern California.