September 24, 2013

Active Towns Blog #5

Creating A Culture of Activity: SLC

I am pleased to start off this blog installment with an exciting announcement: Advocates for Healthy Communities has received a very generous $10,000 sponsorship check from Kaiser Permanente’s national office for the Active Towns Initiative. Thank you so much KP for supporting our efforts to promote and create Active Towns: Inviting & Invigorating Environments!


In my last blog post I presented observations about the Culture of Activity that Established and Emerging Active Towns have created and continue to maintain.

I stated that I believed communities: villages, towns and cities could in fact create a Culture of Activity that has a unique flare all their own.

One of our goals here at Active Towns is to highlight the successes and efforts of other communities as a means to help aspiring Active Towns establish their own inviting and invigorating environments, therefore I’d like to present in this post the first of many observations from our national Active Towns Tour thus far.

In May I attended the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Salt Lake City.

Now to be clear, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the SLC. It had been years since my last visit and the most prominent vision in my mind of the region was a large sprawling city, featuring a very big temple and an amazing mountainous backdrop.

I am somewhat surprised and pleased to admit that I was impressed with much of what I discovered in this vibrant city, which is and has been clearly riding a wave of popularity as witnessed by the large number of hipsters, brew pubs and bicycles… well, that and the packed restaurants, smartly dressed downtown business men and women walking about and full light rail trains depositing energetic passengers of all ages.

It did not take long for me to realize there was something structurally quite different, almost odd about the City. I only sort of noticed it when I first drove into town in my trusty Active Towns Tour bus (aka my Honda Element packed with my bikes and other activity toys), but honestly it wasn’t until I got checked into my budget motel a block away from the conference’s host hotel. It was on my walk to over to the conference to get checked in, when noticed that this was no ordinary one block walk, it was a trek. My legs were moving, yet I did not seem to be making the progress I’m used to. The problem it turns out had nothing to do with my legs, which were, although a bit stiff from the long drive from Colorado, actually working as expected. It was the block. Salt Lake City features some of the longest blocks I have ever seen and massively wide roads to match.

It turns out this was very much by design in the earliest days of the City’s settlement, think of a large heavy wagon and a team of horses and was a big theme permeating the conference. Much of my own explorations of SLC would be by bike and would focus on how they are working to deal with the legacy of their massively wide and long blocks, which as logic would dictate, when auto oriented can potentially inhibit or even kill the desire to walk or bike.

This image is a good example of the distance a downtown pedestrian must traverse.

SLC wide streets long blocks

Wow! This would be fine if you happen to be an accomplished track and field sprinter. However, looking at this reality in another way, the good news is that the Right of Way is established and preserved, therefore it could be considered a blank canvass for doing some pretty cool stuff, as is depicted here in this shot.

SLC room to work with

This view is just a couple blocks over from the previous photo and was once a similar auto-centric high speed roadway, also commonly known as a traffic sewer, yet now it features: light rail transit, green bike lane with Sharrows positioned outside of the door zone, street parking, much wider sidewalks and a pedestrian friendly environment due to the prevailing and reasonable slow speeds.

This next image illustrates another interpretation in creatively using the wide roadway and long block.

SLC wide streets center parking

Here the city used much of that extra space for angled parking on both sides of the street and right smack dab in the middle of the road. In the distance you can just make out a mid-block pedestrian crossing achieved with bulb outs. I rode my bike down this stretch of road many times during the week to get to various functions and destinations, and I can report that it was a most comfortable ride, with the drivers moving along through this space with due care and caution.

The next observation I had from the Salt Lake City tour stop was how they have worked to rescue and revive the sense of nature and wilderness, while being in an urban setting. City Creek has been re-exposed in the downtown and is celebrated in a very visible way.

SLC city creek urban IMG_3987

Without much effort one can actually follow the water right up into to City Creek Canyon Park and within minutes be surrounded by wilderness along a delightful recreation trail.

SLC City Creek wild

Having quick and convenient access to nature is such a valuable asset for any city and is a reoccurring feature with every Active Town I have explored thus far. For more on this theme, I highly recommend the Richard Louv’s book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.

The final observation I’d like to present in this post, involves the commercial revitalization of some of the older first ring neighborhood suburbs of Salt Lake City. In several of these areas corner stores, specialty retail and popular eateries are back and thriving, as is a spirit of community and a culture of activity.


Since there is a convenient mix of uses and a recent overlay of enhanced walking and biking infrastructure, people are increasingly leaving the car at home choosing to stroll or roll under their own power rather than drive a motor vehicle.


This photo provides a great example of how this city district expanded the sidewalks and did some creative concrete work to make the walk more interesting. Blame the photographer (me) for the lack of people in this image, I actually paused to allow a pesky clot of pedestrians to pass to my left and caught a gap down the walkway, providing an unobstructed shot of the walkway artwork. In retrospect, I’d prefer having the peds in there. Oh well, hopefully you get the idea.


Several of these vibrant, desirable communities I visited also featured bike boulevards throughout the adjoining residential neighborhoods.

In conclusion: I have only just scratched the surface of the Salt Lake City experience, but these three themes stood out for me. The City, no doubt, has many challenges and a lot of hard work ahead, but the administration seems genuinely committed to transforming its built environment from an “auto-only” orientation to one which embraces active living… an inviting and invigorating environment. It doesn’t hurt that the City is also getting some positive national attention, as seen here, bing identified as the Cancer Survival Capital, in the 10 Happiest, Healthiest Cities in America list.

In the next post I will highlight some more illustrative examples from the Active Towns Tour.

Please feel free to share your comments and/or suggestions for emerging and established Active Towns on our websiteFacebook page or by email to:

As always, we welcome any and all assistance, so if you’d like to help us directly in our efforts to facilitate healthier communities across the country, please consider making a tax deductible donation. We are current 3/4 of the way toward achieving our Summer Active Towns Tour Fundraising Campaign goal of $20,000. Click here to donate.

Thank you for helping create and support Active Towns everywhere!

johns signature blue


John D Simmerman, MS
Co-Founder, President & CEO
Advocates for Healthy Communities, Inc.
Actives Towns Initiative