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With New Urbanism, sidewalks come back in style in EGF, other cities

Sidewalks soon should be back in fashion in East Grand Forks. The city has gone 34 years without installing a sidewalk in a residential area. But just like hairdos and clothing, styles change. City leaders appear to have reached a consensus that ...

East Grand Forks sidewalks
A sidewalk is under construction along 17th Avenue and 13th Street in East Grand Forks last week. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Sidewalks soon should be back in fashion in East Grand Forks.

The city has gone 34 years without installing a sidewalk in a residential area. But just like hairdos and clothing, styles change.

City leaders appear to have reached a consensus that walkways will be required in future neighborhoods and will work toward adding others in some areas. The requirement is being considered in the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, with no strong opposition.

Safety is the driving force behind the change.

"We want walkers and kids on bicycles to be on sidewalks, not streets," City Council member Craig Buckalew said.


But safety isn't the only motive. Sidewalks also are needed so everyone can reach destinations, said Nancy Ellis, city planner.

"In addition to bikers and walkers, there are the handicapped and the people who need to get to bus service," she said. "All modes should be provided for sustainability and livability. Not everyone drives."

The city doesn't have sidewalks north of 20th Street North nor south of Eighth Street South. Although that means only a few sidewalk-free blocks on the north end, it's the majority of the south end -- the Point -- where most post-flood building has occurred.

Buckalew wants the sidewalks done on the front end, instead of allowing homeowners a few years after occupancy to complete the job. "Otherwise, people ask for an exception, and the council members end up having to be the bad guys," he said.

"Plus, sidewalks make a community."

The far south end does have one sidewalk, thanks to a $175,000 grant. It's a half-mile Safe Route to Schools project along Bygland Road (State Highway 220) to South Point Elementary School. A similar-sized grant will extend the sidewalk south to Central Middle School.

But it's not just about residential areas. The city seeks to build a network of sidewalks, including one that will stretch from downtown to Northland Community and Technical College on the northern edge of the city.

Sidewalks disappeared for two reasons -- cost and a changing lifestyle.


As for cost, a sidewalk on a 100-foot lot costs about $1,800.

Builders were first given waivers during the housing slump in the early 1980s. That was extended after the 1997 flood, when city leaders didn't want to discourage people from living in the city.

Another reason for sidewalks disappearing has been the growing pursuit of privacy. Grand Forks' oldest homes, on the near north side, were built on small lots with front porches for conversations with neighbors strolling past on the sidewalks. But as time passed, lots and homes grew larger and the backyards -- with a deck, a fence or both -- became a private place for relaxation, quiet and escape.

"Besides the cost and the maintenance of sidewalks, another concern of them is their proximity to the front window," Ellis said. "Some people don't want people walking that close."

Longtime council member Dick Grassel said homeowners weren't the only ones who preferred no sidewalks. "Sidewalks initially were put in so mailmen could bring the mail to your front door," he said. "Now, the post office wants mailboxes as close to the curb as possible so they can drive up and drop off the mail."

Some sidewalk-free neighborhoods have wider streets to accommodate walkers, bicyclists and skate-boarders. To keep costs in line, adding sidewalks might mean a trade-off of narrower streets, which will mean parking limited to one side of the street, not both.

There's a name for the design changes: New Urbanism. But it's not all that new, since it began in the early 1980s. But it is still reforming aspects of real estate development and urban planning.

The crux of New Urbanism is that it promotes inviting, walk-accessible neighborhoods that contain diverse housing and a diverse population. It's influenced by standards prominent before automobiles. The objective is to reduce traffic congestion, increase the supply of affordable housing and curb urban sprawl.


"The street is public and the home is private. So a sidewalk is a semi-public space," said Jin Kyu Jung, an assistant professor in UND's geography department with a planning background.

He's a big fan of sidewalks, for the same reasons as local planners, plus one more. "It means eyes on the street," he said. "People see what's going on, so it prevents crime."

With a few exceptions, Grand Forks always has required sidewalks before occupancy.

"The exception is usually a short cul-de-sac, but even on those, we require a paved cut-across path at the end of the bulb so people can get to (a neighboring cul-de-sac)," said Ryan Brooks of the Grand Forks planning office.

Brooks said sidewalks are seeing more traffic because they're routes to walking-and-bike paths, most notably the one in the Greenway.

It's part of a cultural change that has meant more open, closer-knit neighborhoods.

"The days are long gone of 25-foot lots, but we're starting to go back in time a bit," Brooks said. "I'm not sure if we'll get away from fences. But rather than 6-footers, maybe we'll have shorter fences that keep the pets and the kids in and allow conversation over the top."

Ellis, the East Grand Forks planner, also sees a bright future for sidewalks.


"Once they're in and paid for, most people say they like them," she said. "So, they're not opposed to sidewalks; they're just opposed to change."

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com .

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