Leaders discuss walkable design and economic development at Policy Forum 2015

Tommy WellsFormer Washington, DC Councilmember Tommy Wells speaking at the second annual Local Leaders Council Policy Forum on June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC.

How can walkable design help build a vibrant local economy? And what can local leaders do to make this happen? Two dozen leaders from diverse communities discussed these questions during a session at the Local Leaders Council Policy Forum, held on June 1 in Washington, D.C.

Moderating the session was former Washington, DC Councilmember Tommy Wells, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. Wells’ district made several advances in sustainable design and planning during his tenure, and his practical knowledge of governance, politics, and policy set the framework for the conversation.

Joining him on the panel were experts on economic policy, transportation planning, and sustainability. Beth Osborne, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at USDOT and current President of Transportation for America Consulting, brought a federal perspective to the conversation. “Even the federal government is getting into walkable development,” Osborne noted, adding that the two most recent Transportation Secretaries have championed smart transportation investments. She also emphasized how important comprehensive performance measurement can be to these projects’ success. “We’re going to show this matters by measuring it, and we only measure what matters,” she said.

Sam Zimbabwe, Associate Director for Planning and Policy at the District Department of Transportation, challenged the session attendees to think long-term when considering walkability and economic vitality. “If you have big goals, they need to encompass everyone,” he explained, and pointed to the nation’s capital as a case study. “We know what works, but that may be subject to change. The good news is that the market is on our side. People really want this.”

While many cities are looking to introduce new walkable development, Gerry Widdicombe, Director of Economic Development at the Downtown DC BID, has the unique challenge of sustaining that momentum by innovating and reimagining an established downtown. Transforming Washington’s “dull, dirty and dangerous” downtown into an attractive national model didn’t happen overnight. Widdicombe stressed that subsidizing and incentivizing essential services, encouraging public private partnerships, and prioritizing pedestrian infrastructure and lighting were and continue to be the backbone of the DC BID’s success.

Transportation consultant Gabe Klein spent 15 years in the private sector before becoming known for innovative transportation projects in major metropolitan cities like Washington, DC and Chicago. He stressed the importance of breaking down misperceptions about transportation, and used traffic congestion as an example. “The slower somebody is going by your store,” he explained, “the greater the chance they’re going to spend money. The faster they’re going, the lower the chance.” The direct and complimentary relationship between congestion and commerce was a major theme throughout the thought-provoking conversation.

Overall, the lively panel left session attendees with ideas and actionable to-do’s. Visit our Forum archives for the full audio recording of this session and other resources from the Forum.

Policy Forum 2015 was organized by Smart Growth America’s Local leaders Council, a nationwide network of local leaders working to build great communities are economically strong, inclusive and sustainable. This Policy Forum session highlights several leaders who have successfully used a smart growth approach: read our full series of local successes.

Sarah Absetz contributed to this article.

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