How a single parking space represents change in Ithaca, NY

Smart growth strategies are helping improve economic mobility in Ithaca, NY.Smart growth strategies at work in downtown in Ithaca, NY. Photo via Flickr/James Willamor

If you walk by the mayor’s office building in Ithaca, NY, you might notice a curious sight. Outside in the parking lot, in what once was a parking space reserved for the mayor, now lies what appears to be a small park—complete with benches, plantings and nearby bicycle parking. It may seem odd that a standing mayor would forgo his or her own reserved parking space to make way for a park, but that’s exactly what Mayor Svante Myrick did. The unconventional move is just one indication of Myrick’s commitment to smart growth strategies and how they can benefit all residents of the city.

Myrick is the mayor of Ithaca and a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. First elected to Ithaca’s city council at the age of 20 and then to the mayor’s office in 2011 at the age of 24, Myrick saw the parking space outside his office as an opportunity to show residents it’s possible to think differently about their community—especially the role of public space, mobility and active streets.

220px-Svante_Myrick_gimme_coffee_picture“I walk to work. It’s a little over a mile, and I don’t need a parking space,” says Myrick. “So we took a few benches, hollowed out some tree stumps and we created the smallest park in the city of Ithaca. Sure it’s a stunt, but it also shows we can try new things and create spaces for people without spending a lot of money.”

Myrick’s approach to smart growth spans way beyond parklets, however. During his campaign for mayor, Myrick put smart growth strategies at the foundation of his campaign platform, and built a coalition around diverse groups of community stakeholders who each saw the appeal of smart growth through different perspectives.

“Ithaca has tremendous natural beauty and historically has been a progressive and environmentally conscious community—especially in terms of things like recycling, solar panels and social issues. But when it comes to land use, we’ve fallen behind,” says Myrick. “Over the past few decades we fell into the same trap as many other communities did – discouraging growth in the core of our city while allowing suburban sprawl to harm our natural environment, creating longer commutes and wasting more time spent in traffic. I ran on a platform to reverse that course and return to a more traditional way of how cities were originally planned, with people closer to services.”

Myrick explained how smart growth strategies appeal to many different perspectives. “A denser, more urban city appeals to younger people seeking more interesting and active streets. Environmentalists who want lower emissions and see our natural areas preserved got behind smart growth ideas. So did business owners and developers who want to see more people living and working downtown.”

Since Myrick became mayor, Ithaca has passed zoning reforms to allow for larger buildings in the city’s urban core, eliminated minimum parking requirements and passed a first-of-its-kind sidewalk policy which moves away from burdening individual property owners with the entire cost of sidewalk installation and maintenance by creating five Sidewalk Improvement Districts, funded by an annual sidewalk assessment fee. Such a policy is important in Ithaca because the city has the highest percentage of people walking to work in the United States (15.4%) while many of the city’s sidewalks are in need of replacement and repair.

Myrick knows the limitations of the city’s sidewalk network all too well. Not only does he walk to work, but he also knocked on the door of every voter in the city of 30,000 residents ahead of his election—not once, but an average of 2.5 times. It took nine months and fifteen lost pounds, but Myrick said the effort was paramount for understanding and listening to issues facing city residents.

One aspect of smart growth is particularly important to Myrick. “I grew up in poverty and in housing projects,” he explains. “While they were clean, nice buildings, they were far from everything. Cars are expensive to own and many people couldn’t afford them. So you would to walk two miles to the grocery store. By the time you were through walking that far, is it any surprise that nobody felt like doing homework or going to night school or picking up an extra shift at work?”

“If we can help bring folks who are stuck in poverty closer to opportunities in our urban core, closer to their schools and closer to jobs, it’s probably the single best thing we can do to improve their quality of life and improve their economic mobility.”

Local Leaders Council