Leader in cities gives downtown observations

GLOVERSVILLE — Those driving through downtown on Thursday morning may have seen a curious site along North Main Street at Church Street — a dozen people standing a few feet part in an L sharp near the curb listening to a man in the center.

No, it wasn’t a protest or some kind of strange gathering, they were learning about the idea of curb bumps to help improve pedestrian and driver site lines. And as for the man they were listening to? He was nationally known consultant in a variety of public topics.

Mark Fenton came to the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth to meet with local and state leaders, volunteers, business representatives and the public to discuss ways to revitalize downtown corridors with improved walkability and biking opportunities.

Fenton is a national public health, planning, and transportation consultant. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and former host of the “America’s Walking” series on PBS television.

Fenton was also scheduled to stop in Canajoharie at the Canajoharie Masonic Temple later in the day to discuss such ideas with Montgomery County officials and residents.

Fenton was brought to Fulton County through the Mohawk Valley Population Health Improvement Program, in partnership with Basset Healthcare. The series was paid for through a grant by the state Department of Health.

To start, Fenton first did a presentation on the various aspects of reviving downtowns, much with a focus on the ability to walk and bike around.

He said starting in the 1960s, business development changed from a focus on walking to driving with strip malls and building’s designed for cars. Fenton said that is changing again, with many strip malls failing. He said around this same time, more people are looking to move closer to city centers and a part of the community. He said both younger millennials and older baby boomers are part of this growing trend.

Walkable cities aren’t just an economic driver however. Fenton said they can also have an impact on the health of residents.

He spoke about the changes the U.S. has seen in the past 30 years as children went from being “free-range” and doing things independently to being escorted and driven everywhere.

He said in the 1950s to 1980s many children would walk or bike to school and playtime on the weekends and in the summer meant leaving home early and not returning till dinner time.

Now a days, fewer children walk or bike to school and many don’t go out and play unstructured.

“In that same 30 year time span, another thing happened, which is that childhood obesity rates skyrocketed,” Fenton said. “Even if they are in a structured program, they are being driven there. They aren’t hopping on their bikes and riding to a park or a neighborhood space, they’re being driven.”

Fenton said the reason that parents don’t let their kids go places alone anymore is a combination of safety fears and a change in societal expectations. He said studies have shown that there is no evidence that more children are being abducted today. He said in addition, parents who allow their children to be “free range” can be punished.

“If you want to know the real danger kids face…the fact that there is a disease that when I started in the field was known as adult onset diabetes. But we now call it type 2 diabetes. We’re now seeing it in 9- and 10-year-olds, which we didn’t think was physiologically possible,” Fenton said.

Fenton said changing this is not as simple as just telling people to walk or bike more. He said the most effective way to do this is to a take a tiered approach with many different aspects. He said beyond just encouraging people to walk or exercise more they need to have groups, institutions, community and public policy as well.

“You can’t just tell an individual do this or don’t do that,” Fenton said.

Fenton said to help encourage walking and biking, communities should take a look at their layout and see where they can make those activities easier.

Things such as bumping out curbs to help both walkers and drivers see easier, roundabouts to help slow people down, trails that connect to various places in the city and buffer lanes for bikes the place car parking lanes between them and moving vehicles.

“We can’t just tell people to walk, we have to make it actually safe for them,” Fenton said.

Fenton said there are ways to test these ideas including using materials such as hay bales, planters, cones and rubber parking designators to create things like temporary roundabout, curb bumps, road closures and bike lanes.

He said these can be easy ways to test if the ideas work for the community and if people will utilize them without having to spend money on a construction project.

Walk about

During the event, Fenton took attendees on a walking audit of downtown.

While walking downtown, Fenton encouraged the group to think about how people with strollers, walkers, wheelchairs of limited mobility would find downtown.

He said they should be on the lookout for things like cracked and broken sidewalks, high curbs that are not easily handicapped accessible, issues with sight lines and crosswalks that may be difficult for those with limited mobility to cross.

Fenton told the group to additionally look for positive things such as wide sidewalks, art and greenspace.

During the tour, Fenton said he was pleased to see things such as the micropark, renovations at The Glove Performing Arts Center and Castiligione Park alive with people stopping to grab a hot dog.

Those on the tour found areas that could use improvement including the conditions of curbs and sidewalks, more greenspace and less concrete.

Fenton encouraged those at the event to think about connecting Trail Station Park and the Rail Trial through a bike lane down Church Street and across Castiligione Park. He also said it may be worth looking into improving the crossing at the Rail Trail where it intersects West Fulton Street near the city’s Transit Department, making it a straight crossing and adding alerts to drivers about pedestrians on the trail.

Other areas the attendees found could use improvement including more sitting spaces, bike racks and additional crosswalks near the Fulton County CRG building on West Fulton Street where the Gloversville Public library is currently housed.

To see more about Mark Fenton and his presentations go to: markfenton.com

Kerry Minor can be reached at kminor@leaderherald.com.