Walkable communities are the social and economic heart of Connecticut towns. They are the places where small businesses get their start – and endure for decades. They are where we have holiday strolls, Fourth of July parades, community celebrations, and ribbon cuttings. They are the places where people who can’t afford a car or don’t want to drive can experience independence and freedom. They are the images in our postcards, and they are etched into our minds as indelible symbols of community.
But right now, Connecticut doesn’t have enough walkable communities. The areas around our transit centers are underdeveloped, and restrictive zoning has created sprawl that pushes into environmentally sensitive lands and makes owning a car a necessity. How can we reform our zoning codes to encourage the creation of walkable communities?
Connecticut Main Street Center works to ensure that our zoning codes work for all towns. Smart reforms can restore the vitality that historically made our communities so vibrant.
We’d like Connecticut residents to learn more about these issues. For that reason, the Connecticut Main Street Center and Desegregate CT are co-hosting a panel today, which you can register for at desegregatect.org/events. We’ll be discussing the value of walkable communities and making our state more inclusive and affordable for people of all backgrounds and ages – and how zoning can help us get there.
In our work, we’ve seen many Connecticut residents who want to live in walkable communities. A 2016 report by the Connecticut Commission on Aging found that half of the state’s adults wanted to live in a walkable area with shops and restaurants.
The report concluded that “[a]cross the income and demographic spectrum, there is increasing demand for smaller, energy-efficient housing in walkable, transit-served, mixed used neighborhoods.” Nationally, research shows that 76% of Americans are interested in more walkable lifestyles, and over half of the country considers walkable communities to be a high priority when choosing a place to live.
Fifty-nine percent of millennials are similarly looking for a range of affordable housing options, also known as “missing middle housing” in walkable real estate markets. By unlocking restrictive zoning around our transit centers, we will promote opportunities for seniors to age in place and bring more young families to Connecticut.
There are lots of different opportunities that our zoning laws offer. Some of the things we will discuss on the panel include transit-oriented zoning that puts mixed-use development around train stations and “gentle density” which would help diversify the housing stock from our “one-sized fits all” approach. At Connecticut Main Street Center, we support the use of zoning regulations to encourage foot traffic for local businesses, while helping the environment, by reducing the amount of time we’re stuck in our cars.
These proposals would have a big impact. More walkable communities will lead to a stronger social fabric and healthier small businesses. When there are more feet on the street, mom-and-pop shops receive more customers and their businesses grow stronger. According to the CBIA, increases in housing stock would generate economic growth. By stimulating our local businesses, sales tax revenue would increase, and businesses would benefit from a larger availability of labor.
Wallingford is an excellent example of a mid-size Connecticut town that is built around its walkable downtown, which provides restaurants, shops, and space for community activities, all within a quarter mile of the train station. Residential space is interwoven with these activities, allowing for small-town New England charm. Wallingford Center, one of our members, works to ensure it maintains that charm.
To encourage the economic revitalization of our towns and cities, we have to consider what’s holding us back. New ideas on zoning for walkable communities are a good start.
Kimberley Parsons-Whitaker is Interim CEO of Connecticut Main Street Center.