Walking the Walk in Citrus Heights

May 20, 2010

By Nicole Hara and Linda Peek

When Citrus Heights leaders began discussing how to make their community more walkable, they discovered an untapped reservoir of resident interest, commitment and action.

“We knew there were people who liked to walk in Citrus Heights, but we didn’t realize how many and how strongly they felt about it,” said the city’s mayor, Jayna Karpinski-Costa. “And we certainly didn’t realize all the obstacles that made it difficult, and sometimes downright dangerous, to walk in our neighborhoods.”

In 2007, with a grant from the California Healthy Cities and Communities (CHCC) Program, sponsored by the Center for Civic Partnerships, Citrus Heights began a major initiative to engage the community, especially older adults, in mobility planning. A survey and outreach/education component was followed by a proactive walkability planning process targeting older adults and people with disabilities, Over time the effort expanded to include accessible route planning, neighborhood ride audits and a comprehensive complete streets approach to achieve universal accessibility.

A Few Challenges to Overcome

Citrus Heights is an essentially built-out community located in the heart of the Sacramento region. With a population of 88,576 residents in just 14 square miles, it has the highest density in the region. The physical infrastructure in Citrus Heights’ neighborhoods is not conducive to walking. There are large sectors of the city without sidewalks, speed bumps, trail ways, bike paths or even lighting. Obstacles such as trees, bushes, cars and basketball hoops encroaching on walkways are common. The City is bisected by a major interstate highway, and arterial streets criss-cross the city carrying traffic to and from freeways located outside its boundaries. The traffic congestion has spilled over into Citrus Heights neighborhoods, creating resistance to projects that promote circulation and connect neighborhoods.

In addition to the physical and attitudinal challenges, Citrus Heights also faces economic challenges above and beyond the current downturn. As part of a revenue neutrality agreement to keep the County “whole” following Citrus Heights’ incorporation as a city in 1997, all property taxes are retained by the County for the first 25 years of cityhood. The City is in year 12 of this agreement, placing it in a unique revenue situation that requires innovative and thoughtful planning.

Residents Take the Lead

Citrus Heights’ neighborhood structure proved to be the key to getting the community engaged. According to Mary Poole, Management Analyst for the City, “This was a grass-roots program. I was the only city official at these neighborhood meetings. The residents really embraced the whole concept of becoming a walkable community and took ownership of the program.”

A total of eight interactive community meetings were planned and sponsored by different neighborhood associations in Citrus Heights. The meetings were well attended with 25-35 residents at each one. Neighbors learned about the principles of walkability, discussed examples of impediments to walkability in their immediate area and became excited about the possibility of creating meaningful changes.

A walkability survey focused residents’ attention on the factors that influenced their ability to get around and to access needed and desired services. In addition, outdoor audits were completed during or after a walk around the neighborhood, identifying obstacles to walkability. A total of 459 surveys and audits were completed. According to Poole, “The surveys and audits were powerful tools. So many people become actively engaged in thinking about the walkability of their community.”

The Citrus Heights Healthy Cities Steering Committee was instrumental in the success of the project. They developed the walkability survey based on one from the University of Washington.

“We had all the right people on the bus,” Poole said. “They showed up and did the work.”

Into Action

Results of the surveys and audits were presented at a community meeting hosted by R.E.A.C.H. (Residents’ Empowerment Association of Citrus Heights), the umbrella organization for the city’s 10 neighborhood associations. After hearing about the community-wide and neighborhood-specific findings, work groups of residents prioritized the needs, which were compiled in a comprehensive report and presented to the City Council.

The response to the walkability findings and priorities has been a joint effort by residents and the city.

Beginning in 2007 and continuing each year, the Citrus Heights staff and Council have incorporated the identified needs and recommended priorities from the walkability study in the annual Capital Improvement Project (CIP) budget process. As a result, multiple sidewalk in-fills and street connection projects have been completed, creating safe walking environments for residents. On the neighborhood side, residents were asked by the neighborhood associations to trim trees and bushes that encroach in the sidewalk or walking area along their property and most have been happy to do so. Residents have also modified their pet areas, so dogs will not frighten walkers passing by their home.

Walkability Plus

With the high level of resident interest and involvement and the commitment of the city to creating universal access for residents of all ages, Citrus Heights has expanded its original project to include a wide variety of related activities that enhance and promote walkability. The neighborhood associations have continued their focus on older adults by identifying accessible routes to services and destinations and distributing that information to residents. Several of the neighborhoods have also conducted neighborhood ride audits to assist older adults in learning to use the available transit services.

Given Citrus Heights’ unique fiscal situation, city staff has aggressively pursued outside funding and leveraged their healthy cities funds to bring in significant resources. In partnership with the school district, they were recently awarded almost $900,000 in Safe Routes to School funding that will provide sidewalk in-fill and intersection upgrades along a route that links a park on one end and a commercial center on the other, with the city’s high school and an elementary school in between, to encourage walking and biking for people of all ages.

The city’s decision to include “complete streets” as one of the four focus areas of the current General Plan update reflects the priority on walkability.

“It’s exciting to have the chance to convert all the things we’ve been talking about into written policy,” said Mayor Karpinski-Costa.

The city’s focus on older adults also continues, as Citrus Heights looks to the future and the growth of the older adult population. A special effort is planned to ensure that older adults are actively involved in the community planning process for the General Plan Update and a new effort being supported by CHCC funding from the Center for Civic Partnerships is underway to design and develop a Green Planning Academy geared for older adults.

For more information, please contact:

Nicole Hara, CA Healthy Cities and Communities Program Coordinator, Center for Civic Partnerships; nhara@civicpartnerships.org; 916.646.8680

Mary Poole, Management Analyst, City of Citrus Heights; mpoole@citrusheights.net; 916.727.4730

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