America Walks Workshop Cultivates Inclusive, People-First Connectivity in Brewton
The city of Brewton, Alabama is challenged to foster walkability for any number of reasons. The town is situated between two creeks that dump into a river –– an artifact of a time when sawmills pumped product where it needed to go. There’s also a railroad track, another symbol of times gone by, that splits the downtown area. In modern days, these former drivers of productivity are just further barriers for community members in navigating accessible, connected, active transportation. Although downtown connectivity repair is high on the radar for Brewton, the America Walks ACE Communities Workshops on Walkable and Vibrant Small Towns held last summer was what actually helped to shape an entirely new directive around residential connectivity, inclusion and access, and breaking down departmental silos in the last year.
For city staff and stakeholders, the workshop and included walk audits led them to determine that their money and energy would make a greater and quicker impact on something less complicated and perhaps more equitable than the heavy lift of addressing those historical legacies found in the downtown area. They decided to focus instead on key residential sectors of Brewton, creating major crossing connectivity across three corridors of Belleville Avenue at the YMCA, Gordon at Hwy 31, and Sowell Road at Gordon. Connie Baggett, Director of Program Management for the City of Brewton, says the socioeconomics of these areas paint a story of division. On the eastern side of the highway there are neighborhoods that have been historically underserved.
“We had this split in our city that divided one group of people from the other. It turns out you don’t have equal access to resources when you can’t cross that street. So that made our team much more aware of obstacles being put in people’s way that we could easily address,” says Connie.
These crossings connect a series of diverse residential areas to sidewalk systems, and in-turn, key community resources like the Fisher Center, Brewton Public Library, Brewton Area YMCA, schools, and shopping. The work is well underway and includes installing a crossing signal, crosswalk paintings, working with the YMCA to help them add lighting plus a signal, and more.
The America Walks ACE Communities Workshops also sparked a new lens for Brewton city staff around prioritizing inclusive and accessible design. They learned that until you actually put feet on the ground and make the attempts to walk paths, or make crossings, you have no idea what a pedestrian faces regarding obstacles, traffic, or surface safety.
“When they split us up and sent us out with a person with disabilities, that was a real eye opener for all of us. There are a lot of times we may not be paying enough attention to what someone may be facing if they get to the end of the sidewalk and there is no ramp or connecting sidewalks when they get there. It really opened our eyes to the ways we can improve things in our city,” recalls Connie.
After the workshop and walk audits, the walkability team brainstormed on what inclusive mobility might look like in their city and quickly connected with several community members with disabilities. They worked with one person who uses a wheelchair, someone whose child has Cerebral Palsy, and other folks with a more limited range of mobility to find out and observe exactly what obstacles they face when getting around Brewton.
“It’s a sector of the community that we really had not communicated with directly. Going to the source was very helpful in looking at things we could do to make things easier for everybody,” says Connie.
The City of Brewton also learned lessons in accountability and breaking down silos. When the issue of walkability started to rise Connie reached out to active community members and advocates in the walking and biking movement, something that really hadn’t been done before. The walkability committee has also been able to bridge gaps between city departments, school system officials, state officials and a wide variety of local stakeholders. The workshops held leaders and stakeholders accountable to finally address walkability exclusively and prioritize it on their agenda.
Connie says she sees the major crosswalk installation and the other connectivity projects as a uniting and educational act, especially so that children on both sides of the highway can take full advantage of resources in other places. The city is also publicly campaigning, especially to school children, about the new crossings, how to safely utilize them, and why they are critical. There was a lot of curiosity around the crosswalk paintings and that generated a natural community investment in the work that is being done. So far there has been an immediate increase in pedestrian traffic at the main intersection –– where people are actively using the new crosswalk and safely making their way across the city.
Are you or your local leaders interested in working with America Walks to help facilitate walk audits or other technical assistance in your community? Contact us here.