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Brighton, Michigan, is an ‘Old Pro’ at Walkable Design
Cover Story, by Jennifer Eberbach
Location: Southeast Michigan
Walker-friendly terms like “traffic calming,” “pedestrian islands” and “roundabouts” have been part of the vocabulary in Brighton for years.
Since the 1990s, leaders in this Livingston County community have been committed to making the city walkable and accessible. City Manager Dana Foster and Community Development and Planning Director Matt Modrack explain that creating a “walkable community” has been a goal for more than a decade—even before the movement was en vogue. That progress has accelerated since working with national walkability expert Dan Burden. “He is very much responsible for what we have done. He has been our guru,” Foster says.
Burden has visited Brighton three times since the late 1990s. Initially, he came to town on a SEMCOG grant to perform a field audit. He walked and drove the city to get a first-hand sense of the pedestrian and traffic situations. He returned once to assess their progress and the city ended up hiring him as a consultant. Initially, “SEMCOG contacted us because they had already been working with us on some traffic issues, and they knew we were struggling with some vehicular and pedestrian related conflicts back then,” Foster remembers.
“That’s where we first got ideas like traffic calming, in terms of physical barriers that encourage calming. It’s where we learned about things like pedestrian traffic islands at crosswalks, and getting buildings closer to the front lot lines and the curbside in our core downtown in order to visually promote the traffic calming effect,” Foster says. He also credits Burden with educating Brighton about improved traffic signals and signage, as well as increased density downtown and much more.
Aside from doing a field audit, Burden gave his input on the design of two particular projects that were huge in making Brighton the pedestrian-friendly community it is today. Foster said that it was Burden who recommended city officials construct a roundabout on Third Street. The roundabout allows traffic to move through an intersection without the use of traffic lights. It was such a success on moving traffic and people smoothly and quickly that Burden frequently uses photos of it in his walkability presentations done throughout the world. The second major project getting the “Burden touch” involved another difficult intersection. “We were in deep with the Cross Street and Grand River intersection,” Foster says. “That used to be one of the most dangerous intersections, not only in Brighton, but in Livingston County. Burden basically redesigned that project right before our city engineers’ eyes.” Improvements to the intersection include raised islands for pedestrians crossing the street, dedicated turning lanes, and improved traffic signals.
Modrack points out that Brighton’s raised paver-brick crosswalks and pedestrian-activated chaser lights, for example, do an effective job at keeping drivers alert. “(They) reinforce to the driver that this is a different material and I need to be paying more attention when I’m driving over these things.” Similarly, by moving lot lines closer to the curb, increasing density downtown, and establishing standards for the aesthetic design of both the urban core and surrounding neighborhoods, Brighton is working to “create a sense of place,” Foster and Modrack agree. According to them, “a sense of place” not only makes the public areas more attractive to pedestrians, but it also indicates to motorists that they are entering an active urban core.
While Burden’s counsel has had a large impact on Brighton’s approach to physical design, Foster and Modrack also point out that walkability has been ingrained in the city’s various plans for a decade. Having a walkable community has been included among the city council’s goals and objectives, the city master plan and the Downtown Development Authority’s plans. Even before working with Burden, Brighton had completed projects that significantly impacted pedestrian accessibility in town.
One of Brighton’s most successful pre-Burden projects was the construction of a three-legged bridge, called the “Tridge,” at the Mill Pond that sits in the middle of town. This unique bridge connects some of Brighton’s public areas, including the very popular Imagination Station playground for families. Before the project was completed, “the general population was only able to enjoy one small portion of the Mill Pond,” which was limited to the south tip of the pond. “There was no public access to the property butting up against the Mill Pond around the rest of it. The Tridge opened up the Mill Pond for pedestrian and recreational activity, in general,” Foster explains. Modrack adds that the project has helped “increase access to commercial and business districts,” by better connecting neighborhoods on all sides of the pond.
Increasing foot-traffic also pleased local business people like Joe Mackle, director of operations for the Stillwater Grill. The popular Brighton restaurant is located just outside of the downtown district, but thanks to the Tridge and related boardwalks pedestrians can easily walk to the Stillwater restaurant from the downtown area.
“It’s hard to put an exact figure on it, but since the year the Tridge opened up it probably increased our summer business by at least 15 percent,” Mackle said. “People will park their cars downtown, watch a concert or go to the Imagination Station playground, then they’ll walk over here for dinner. Maybe later they’ll head back downtown for ice cream at the Yum Yum Tree. Families, in particular, love being able to walk from place to place.”
Another piece of the puzzle involves “creating destination walkables,” like Brighton’s Biennial Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit. Currently in its second round, the biennial public art exhibit showcases outdoor sculptures at around 30 locations spanning the length of downtown. Every two years the artworks are swapped out to make room for new public sculptures. The city has also purchased nine permanent works. According to Foster and Modrack, the biennial is a marriage between cultural tourism and a walkable destination that not only “puts feet on the street,” but it moves those feet from one side of downtown to the other.
Brighton is in the midst of improving access to the northern part of town, which houses activity centers like the public library and the post office. It is also the area where one finds a large Meijer and the mall, which they determined was severely lacking in walkable elements. The plan, which is partially in place, includes new wider sidewalks, landscaping, crosswalks and entrance signage. There is also a proposal on the table to add a natural habitat preserve on the north side of town.
Foster concludes that Brighton has “done a lot, but we also have a long way to go,” in order to make the city a more walkable, 21st century community. “We still have some gaps between our commercial and activity centers” that they are still trying to bridge, he says. Regardless of the work Brighton has left to do, the city has already made leaps and bounds before many communities have gotten their own walkability programs off the ground, so to speak.
Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or
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