Newspaper cartoonist Richard Guindon said 30 years ago that one doesn’t live in Edina as much as achieve Edina. The affluent old suburb attached to Minneapolis’ southwestern flank could, indeed, have devolved into a snooty enclave, but has instead emerged as a progressive model for other inner-ring communities trying to retrofit for a new century.
By proposing to expand the city’s sidewalk network, Edina’s planners have done what planners are supposed to do: anticipate the next market. And, clearly, the next generation of home buyers is looking for neighborhoods that don’t require a car for every trip. That means transit and bike choices. But, most fundamentally, it means sidewalks.
The plan championed by Mayor James Hovland and passed by the City Council this week will add roughly 40 miles of sidewalks over the next 20 to 30 years to neighborhoods built without them, largely in the 1950s and ’60s. (Older districts, like Country Club and Morningside, are laced with sidewalks.)
The plan isn’t overly ambitious; it adds sidewalks only where they’re most useful — near schools, for example, as part of a walk-to-school initiative, or near parks, trails, transit stops and shopping destinations, or in places where auto traffic poses a particular hazard to would-be pedestrians. The plan pays special attention to trees, saying that city crews should do everything possible to avoid removing them or damaging their roots.
No sidewalks will be built on private property, and no special assessments to nearby residents will be charged. Rather, the city will tap a Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety Fund passed last year as part of a new “Living Streets” program designed to promote active lifestyles and alternatives to driving. The fund draws $1.45 per month from each household’s gas and electricity bill — a minor sum for a wealthy town with property taxes that rank among the metro area’s lowest.
Still, the prospect of sidewalks has drawn protests from some longtime residents who accuse city leaders of trying to cram “citification” down their throats when, in fact, they like Edina just the way it is — or, perhaps more accurately, the way it used to be. That’s been a common theme in recent years along many fronts.
A favorite complaint has been the morphing of the old Southdale shopping center into a teeming lifestyle district that includes taller buildings and an urbanized flavor. Opposition to sidewalks is a close cousin. Sidewalks seem, at least to some, an urban intrusion into a suburban ideal that’s slipping away.
“ ‘Sidewalks to nowhere’ will have weeds growing out of them and, of course, force residents to lose much of their front yards and suffer property value declines,” is how one bitter resident described the situation to Edina officials.
That view is a familiar theme in American politics these days: a deep suspicion about any public investment in what used to be called “the common good.” The nation has fallen dangerously behind on repairing and expanding roads, bridges, ports and other transportation assets. And it seems paralyzed in the face of other big problems (like climate change and entitlement reform) because of peoples’ reluctance to collectively sacrifice now for the benefit of future generations.
To their credit, Edina’s elected leaders declined to cave in to that impulse. Yes, there are legitimate drawbacks to sidewalks. (Someone has to clear them of snow in winter, for example.) But the arguments for safety, healthier lifestyles, neighborly contact, transportation choices and future marketability are overwhelming. Edina has forged a thoughtful, prudent sidewalk plan that other suburbs should emulate if they want to stay competitive.
As the plan marched toward unanimous passage on Tuesday night, Council Member Josh Sprague offered this appropriate summary: “It’s a pledge to the next generation.”