Sidewalks offer curb appeal for modern communities | WBEZ
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Sidewalks offer curb appeal for modern communities

Pedestrian-friendly communities are big in real estate. Websites now list a home’s “walk score” along with how many bathrooms it has. And some suburbs are trying to change with the trend.

Take Sandy Springs, Ga. It’s a sprawling, car-centric suburban city just north of Atlanta. Like a lot of suburbs, it doesn’t have many sidewalks, but the city is trying to build them. One place that’s happening now is a road that winds past a golf course and to a park. Construction workers are re-doing the road, and adding a sidewalk.

“We first started this project several years ago because we wanted to create more pedestrian-friendly area not just here but all across Sandy Springs,” said Mayor Rusty Paul, watching the progress of the workers.  

There didn’t use to be much demand for sidewalks, said Paul. Now everybody wants them, he said.

“I hear, ‘When are my sidewalks going in?’” he said.

But it’s not that easy. It costs a lot, said Paul, and it takes planning. 

Sandy Springs tried one approach, where any new house also had to have a sidewalk. “Which lead to a lot of sidewalks to nowhere, a patchwork of unconnected sidewalks,” Paul said.  

The lack of sidewalks is not really Sandy Springs’ fault, said Dan Reuter, community development division manager with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“You have a whole bunch of places like Atlanta that really grew during a period when outward expansion or as you might call sprawl was very popular,” said Reuter.

Now, tastes have changed.

“I probably had keys in my hand when I turned 16,” Reuter said. “My daughter is 16 and has no intention of driving.”

The Atlanta Regional Commission supports more walkable development not just for the millennials, said Reuter. It’s also for seniors, for families with kids or people who just want to drive less.

“We have certainly found that those walkable areas tend to do better over time,” said Skylar Olsen, an economist with the real estate website Zillow. “They were more resilient during the housing bubble bust, and they’ve since appreciated much faster.”

Sidewalks are a fundamental piece of that new real estate reality. 

Now, instead of the “sidewalk to nowhere” ordinance, Sandy Springs is prioritizing where to put them; around schools and parks, for instance.

Mayor Rusty Paul said it’s all going to take time. “We look at it like a salami,” he said. “We’re going to keep slicing it till we’ve got enough for a sandwich.”

This is something a lot of people are working on: academics, city planners and developers, trying to figure out how to retrofit the suburbs.

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