City planner Peggy Merriss said the city’s “walkability” has been a long-term investment that started in the 1980s.
“In terms of encouraging walking and walkability in Decatur, it was in part an economic tool,” said Merriss. “It was seen as a way to revive and reconnect our central business district after a pretty tough period of downturn.”
She said the city started its focus on walkability by trying to connect neighborhoods to the central business district by sidewalks to encourage more success and growth in the area.
Infrastructure, such as sidewalks, street trees and trash receptacles to encourage pedestrian traffic soon became an important factor in the city’s revitalization.
Diane Capriola, owner of Little Shop of Stories, a family bookstore at 133 E Court Sq., said there is always a steady stream of people walking by her store.
“Our business has really grown because of foot traffic and I think that with the city being so walkable, we are a destination place for families who live nearby,” she said.
Similarly, Lori Ronca, co-owner of HomeGrown, an artist cooperative retail shop at 412 Church St., said Decatur’s foot traffic was the main reason why she and co-owner Beth Thompson chose to open their store in the city.
“My business partner and I would not have opened a shop in any other place but Decatur,” Ronca said. “The health of the city is linked to how many people are walking because there is obviously a lot of interesting things to see and do if more people are out and about.”
She said she often hears comments from people visiting Decatur about its walkability, too.
“Visitors come to Decatur and say how great it is to park somewhere and be able to walk to so many different locations because it’s all right here,” she said.
Ronca said both she and Thompson walk to work frequently.
Most recently, Merriss said, a health-based approach has become a main factor in keeping the city walkable.
“Our active living departments have started a “safe routes to school” program to encourage students to walk or bike to school, which all of our elementary schools, as well as our middle and high school, are involved with,” she said. “The department also supports ‘walk with a doc’ every Wednesday and walking clubs.”
Part of the responsibility of having a walkable city is upkeep and Merriss said the city has recognized that walkability is important to its citizens.
She said through a bond issued at about $1.5 million, the city can keep walkability up through construction work on both new sidewalks and by maintaining existing paths.
The city has also worked on traffic-calming projects, bike lanes and narrowing its streets to encourage pedestrian activity.
Overall, Merriss said the city’s focus on walkability has attributed greatly to its rebound and success.
“One of the reasons residents and businesses owners said they came to Decatur was because it was so easy to get out and walk to restaurants, walk to a drycleaners, walk to a grocery store,” she said, attributing the success of the commercial business district to the city’s walkability.
“We’ve realized now that walkability is a health issue, a quality of life issue and an important issue that we as a city will continue to support.”