SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES COLLOBORATIVE
Suggest narrowing a street? Heresy!
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The conversation has changed tremendously over the past decade. Give some of the credit to the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, which advocated for smarter transportation policy as well as encouraging development along the light-rail corridor.
And give credit to the Collaborative for embracing non-traditional members, including Vitalyst Health Foundation (formerly St. Luke’s Health Initiatives), which expanded the conversation to considering how development and transportation policy affects health.
You’ll find the group’s fingerprints on Phoenix’s Complete Streets plan. On bike share. In the Reinvent Phoenix effort. And in the campaign for a tax increase to fund expansion of light rail and other transit options.
“The Collaborative has shown how you can leverage light rail to build stronger neighborhoods and improve health by concentrating more development along the alignment,” says Dan Klocke, vice president of development at Downtown Phoenix Inc. “Light rail is an organizing principle. There’s a natural way to build near station stops.”
In the car-centric Valley, streets were always designed to move automobiles as quickly and efficiently as possible. But shouldn’t people count for something?
“We wanted a better walking environment, so we put together a working group,” says Silvia Urrutia of Raza Development Fund. “It was all the ‘crazy people’ again — LISC, me, St. Luke’s Health Initiatives, public health, AARP, the disabled community.”
The group developed an ordinance to enforce walkability, which was dead on arrival at City Hall. “The city was not happy, but they were willing to work on it and make it implementable,” Urrutia says.
Complete Streets was the result, encouraging street design that is no longer solely about moving cars quickly. Instead, the new approach balances the “safety and comfort of all users of the public right-of-way.”
It was a hard sell, says C.J. Eisenbarth Hager, director of health community policies for Vitalyst.
“So often it’s positioned as an either/or. The pushback is that many streets are not in good repair. There are $550 million in maintenance needs,” she says. “We approached it in several ways. A notable percentage of people have to depend on something besides a personal car. Safe alternatives are important.”
They also framed it in economic-development terms. “This is what smart people in the world want. To attract them to our city, we need to create a streets system that is safe and comfortable to walk,” Eisenbarth Hager says.
Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa all had an interest in creating a bike-share system — those racks where you can rent a bicycle for a short period, returning it there or to another rack. With the traditional way of doing things, they would have each advertised for bids and created three separate systems.
Collaborative executive director Shannon Scutari and steering committee member Jim McPherson reached out to Tempe and Mesa officials to work with their Phoenix counterparts to create a single system. This approach would allow someone to rent a bike in Phoenix, for instance, ride it to a farmers market, then hop on a light-rail train to Tempe to visit an arts fest, get back on the train to Mesa, ride to a park and return the bicycle before taking the light rail home.
“It just made sense to create economies of scale, promote the bike share concept together, build synergy, and forge a unique and easily expandable partnership all connected by light rail,” said McPherson.
Phoenix was rejected the first time it sought a federal sustainable cities planning grant. The second application incorporated many of the elements the Collaborative has advocated, including a health element — “super duper holistic planning,” in the words of Phoenix village planner Katherine Coles.
It paid off. The city received one of the program’s largest grants for Reinvent Phoenix, which divides the light-rail corridor into five distinct areas with the intent of establishing community-based visions for transit-oriented planning and development.
That makes it one of the Collaborative’s biggest hits, in the eyes of Kristen Busby, a director of the Urban Land Institute’s Arizona District Council. “Some of the changes were huge. The Collaborative was available to drive, motivate and support necessary changes, and to help educate the general public.”
The group laid the groundwork with the development community in a way city staff could not have, Coles says. “They really framed the conversation. They could move more swiftly than the city could. They knew the developers and how to bring them into the room. They spoke their language.”
The Collaborative and Vitalyst, when it was still St. Luke’s Health Initiatives, had joined forces to expand policy discussions about transportation and transit-oriented development to include health issues, something that was rare at the time. “I don’t know if health would have come up otherwise,” Eisenbarth Hager says.
But because health was part of the conversation, Reinvent Phoenix talks about sidewalks. It talks about parks. It talks about access to fresh food, an issue in some low-income neighborhoods with no grocery store in walkable distance.
“Talk about a vulnerable population — folks who don’t own a car,” Eisenbarth Hager says. “We could be a voice for these people who often are not included in these conversations.”
In January 2015, a Survey Monkey poll of Sustainable Communities Collaborative members found that their top priority was passing a Phoenix transit tax. By the end of the summer, they could check that goal off the list.
The Collaborative was not the only force behind the success of Proposition 104, which raised the sales tax to fund light-rail, bus and street improvements, but it and its predecessors helped lay the groundwork for how the tax package came together.
The Collaborative had excelled in bringing diverse voices to transit-oriented development discussions. It had shown the benefits of hearing from people outside the traditional circles. Perhaps the Phoenix City Council noticed. When it appointed members to the Citizens Committee on the Future of Phoenix Transportation, transportation experts, developers, bicycle enthusiasts, apartment association leaders, transit fans, community service leaders and Scutari were included.
Scutari and other Collaborative members would later work to promote Prop. 104.
“We helped people see the value in the proposition – cyclists, Millenials, Boomers, even people with a car-first mentality,” she says. Groups that are rarely heard at election time, including AARP, submitted letters of support for the election publicity pamphlet.
“How do you create multi-modal transportation options in a red state? By being inclusive, inclusive, inclusive, inclusive,” Scutari says.