Envisioning a more walkable Anchorage

The Anchorage trail system has quite possibly the most diverse set of users of any trail system in any city in all of America: walkers, runners, bikers, rollerbladers, skiers, skijorers, snowshoers, dog mushers, birdwatchers and horseback riders all traverse its vast network.

Still, 66 percent of Anchorage residents admitted to wishing they used the trails more than they do now, according to a survey conducted last year by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.

That should come as good news for local advocates seeking to make Anchorage trails easier to navigate and access, and create a more walkable city for recreation, commuting, fitness and quality of life.

Despite some delays and impediments, there has been real progress made over the past year. From the implementation of the Anchorage Bicycle Plan to the city's first mixed-used development, the coordinated effort of user groups, developers and city planners to create community through walkability is making great strides.

A goal: Trails for all

As executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation, Beth Nordlund's goal is to help everyone feel comfortable with the trail system. She believes improved wayfinding -- through signage and phone apps -- will make a significant difference, as well as enlisting neighborhood residents to participate in the improvement of their own trail section.

"I would like to neighborhood-ize the trail system," Nordlund said, meaning she hopes to better connect residents to their local amenities -- schools, stores and office buildings.

Within each neighborhood, she'd like to build a group that knows its access points to the trails, advocates for expansion, and spurs development -- not only of the trails themselves, but of lighting and artistic displays. She hopes to see neighborhoods build community around that thing we all love -- our own segment of the system.

"We already know Anchorage parks and trails are why people choose where they live in Anchorage," said Holly Spoth-Torres, the Anchorage municipality's park superintendent. "My goal is to have a park within a quarter mile of everyone in Anchorage, and for everyone to be able to access a trail within walking distance."

Striving for bike-friendliness

Steve Cleary, executive director of Alaska Trails, a nonprofit organization that promotes the expansion of trail systems statewide, has a parallel vision for the biking community.

"I would like Anchorage to be recognized as a bike-friendly city," he said, adding that it would revitalize Anchorage and help it attract more professionals and millennials. "It already has long corridors to make commuting relatively convenient."

Cleary said he would like to see the expansion of on-road infrastructure to create bike lanes along major roadways, as designed by the Anchorage Bicycle Plan, which was approved by the Anchorage Assembly in 2010 but has yet to provide real solutions for bicycle commuters.

Though progress has been slow and there are significant funding, redesign and safety challenges, the plan is set to move forward this summer with funding secured by Bike Anchorage, another bicycle advocacy nonprofit. Its president, Brian Litmans, emphasized that with only 10 miles of bike lanes incorporated into today's road infrastructure, and 109 miles approved for implementation, the plan will create 10 times the currently available bike lane mileage. Even better, the additional miles will not only add length but deliberately connect business districts to residential areas.

Maintenance challenges for winter city walkers

Even if Anchorage had a trail within a quarter mile of every resident, and a biking infrastructure to rival Portland's, it would still be a winter city, with snow and ice as an added impediment to accessibility. In 2012, when the city broke its record for most snowfall, neighborhood streets narrowed to one lane, to say nothing of the sidewalks. Tellingly, that year's mayoral race seemed to hinge on which candidate voters believed could best manage the city's snow removal network.

With 200 miles of sidewalks and trails to maintain year-round, the municipality's goal is to have all sidewalks open within 72 hours of snowfall, in addition to the more than 1,200 miles of roadways it oversees.

While the municipality's deputy director for maintenance and operations, Alan Czajkowski, says that they maintain that standard, or better, he admits that residents aren't always satisfied with the muni's progress. Snow spills over onto sidewalks after a road clearing; equipment is too large or heavy to maneuver along sidewalks; the price of picking up thaw-enducing chemicals makes it too costly to put them down in the first place.

In addition, it's just plain difficult to produce pavement after record-breaking snow -- or, for that matter, unseasonable warmth, as has been a more pressing concern this winter.

"When it's 40 degrees in the afternoon and freezing at night, there's not a whole lot I can do," Czajkowski said of this winter's weather. He added, though, that the municipality does want to know about problem areas, and he encourages residents to call the street clearing hotline at 907-343-8277.

Mixed-use developments

To really integrate walkability as a lifestyle, the Anchorage municipality has begun to experiment with mixed-used developments -- its pilot being Turnagain Crossing, the apartment-bistro complex in the Turnagain neighborhood best known for its popular restaurant, the Rustic Goat.

Conceptualized by local developer James Brooks, the project had its delays and hiccups, but in the 2013 rewrite of Title 21, the municipality adapted permanent zoning codes to allow such developments and encourage the kind of compatibility between residential and commercial districts that has been popularized in some of America's most walkable cities.

"The new Title 21 has changes that make it easier to develop mixed-use developments, from the perspective of zoning regulations, and will result in a more walkable city over time," said Erika McConnell, current planning section manager for the Anchorage Municipal Planning Department.

Another win for a more pedestrian-friendly, community-oriented -- and healthy -- city.

This story appeared in the March 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.