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Grand Rapids has been designed vehicle-first. How do we undo this infrastructure?

Extra-wide residential streets. Drivers failing to yield at any of the various pedestrian crossing signals that have been installed.

Photo of Meagen Coburn

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We all talk about wanting to be pedestrian-first, and every person who loves Grand Rapids loves to talk about Chicago in the same breath. But we aren't Chicago, nor should we ever be. I'd love to see us take our own identity and do it right, but we have to undo a lot of infrastructure from decades of city-center abandonment and rebuilding. Think about it: Chicago river. NYC harbor. San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge. Portland's bridges and boat rides to various areas of town. Jacksonville's iconic bridges (thanks, Limp Bizkit). What did we do with our iconic river running through our center-city? We built a highway overtop it. The S-curve is so wide and so perspective-shifting that as someone who has lived here for 15 years, I often challenge myself when driving through that stretch to determine which side of the highway the river is actually on. Often times I couldn't even tell you. And I happen to work at the top floor of a 100 year old building that sits just 5 feet off of the curve. Articles from StrongTowns always get me thinking about this:


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Photo of Justin Fuchs

The crazy thing is that in Chicago I'm perfectly happy parking a mile (or more) from my destination and walking the rest of the way. But in GR, if I'm not within a block, I contemplate going home and skipping the chronic fries altogether. I could walk from one corner of Downtown GR to the other in about 20 minutes, but that thought never crosses my mind for some reason.

Photo of Meagen Coburn

It's so true. A friend of mine got home from a vacation in LA and lived downtown here. Her boyfriend got in the car to go to the bank and then realized, wait a minute... we just walked EVERYWHERE the last week... I'm going to walk! And did the Google Maps thing only to realize you could walk from the hospital on Michigan to Founders and still be drastically shorter distance than any of us normally walk in a vacation city. It's so weird that it seems like this mentally overwhelming distance when it truly isn't.

Photo of Tom Bulten

You point out really interesting psychologies of walking and distance, Justin and Meagen. The "newness" of a "vacation" city seems fresh and interesting--a place to explore and experience on foot. But, walking seem like a burden in the "same-old, same-old" of our home city. The urban planning requirements for building transparency (windows), building setbacks, and the like help keep us engaged and interested as we walk. Thanks for your insightful comments.

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