The rise of the sharing economy is providing us with an opportunity to see what happens when virtual walkability meets real walkability. On the one hand, the sharing economy refers to Internet-based social networking that creates a tightly knit, “walkable” global community, in which goods, resources and services can be shared with great facility over remote distances. On the other hand, you have actual walkability, which is based on the same geographically limited, brick-and-mortar infrastructure that people have been negotiating for millenia. Or is it?
The environmental consulting firm Skeo Solutions has recently completed an infrastructure and revitalization plan for a community called Bellemeade in Richmond, Virginia, and the results point to a deeper understanding of what the sharing economy means not only for the individual entrepreneurs that benefit directly from it, but also for the benefit of entire communities as well.
The sharing economy in a nutshell
The key benefit of the sharing economy is that it enables more people to start up and sustain a small business, even if their financial resources are limited and even if they live in small communities that simply don’t have enough local foot traffic to support commercial activity.
The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the opportunity for country-oriented people to sustain a good livelihood in thinly populated rural areas. That’s especially good news for small, specialty farmers as well as rural craftspersons and artisans.
But the really interesting thing about the sharing economy is not only that it facilitates remote lifestyles, but that it also encourages closeness. When applied to disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, the sharing economy has the potential to spark more economic activity within the local community, and that’s where projects like Skeo’s Watershed Concept Plan for Bellemeade come in.
A new plan for a walkable community
Skeo’s project is also called the Bellemeade Walkable Watershed, which dovetails with the City of Richmond’s stormwater master plan. The Bellemeade neighborhood has been targeted as a priority for stormwater improvements because it is bisected by an urban creek that feeds into the James River, an important tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
The city’s infrastructure goal is to reduce polluted runoff from streets and yards, and to create more opportunities for fresh rainwater to infiltrate.
However, that is just one aspect of the project. Skeo, in collaboration with numerous partners, including the Green Infrastructure Center and the Altria Foundation, has broadened the stormwater management issue to include all aspects of community development. The ultimate goal is to turn one of the community’s major drawbacks – the “impaired and neglected urban creek” – into a significant asset.
To accomplish that, Skeo’s project merges stormwater management with the neighborhood’s newly constructed Oak Grove Bellemeade elementary school, along with an adjacent community center and park.
Part of the challenge has been to transform the school transportation model from 100 percent busing to a pedestrian-friendly, walkable “schoolshed” that also serves public health goals for encouraging more routine physical activity. That includes improving pedestrian and biking routes with new sidewalks and intersection upgrades, and improving crossings over the creek.
The creek will also interact closely with the school, becoming an outdoor education opportunity along with the park. The school itself was designed by the firm VMDO as a sustainable building, so the creek adds a reinforcing context for the architect’s goals.
The park itself, which previously had no amenities, will be upgraded to become a community focal point with facilities for neighborhood gatherings, community gardening, outdoor education and other amenities.
In essence, the project transforms the creek from an access barrier to a point of community connection.
Walkability and the sharing economy
When you apply the sharing economy to this kind of urban revitalization, it’s pretty clear that a new dynamic is emerging between environmental protection, urban revitalization, education, public health and the potential for economic development in disadvantaged communities.
Ambitious revitalization projects are nothing new, but the sharing economy provides a new element of individual entrepreneurship to this scenario. By providing more people with a stronger economic anchor in their communities, the sharing economy has the potential to facilitate more financial support from local residents for improving shared public spaces and resources, namely parks, schools and community centers.
It’s also worth noting that by bringing more money into distressed communities through commerce, the sharing economy also has the potential to spark growth in conventional brick-and-mortar neighborhood services, such as restaurants, corner groceries, convenience shops, hardware stores and laundries.
Gentrification from without, or within
The sharing economy might also help to expand the conventional pattern of gentrification, which has long been characterized by new, more affluent populations moving into disadvantaged communities.
In the integrated sharing economy/walkable neighborhood model of the future, there is a greater potential for long time residents to begin building up a financial stake from within the community, as well as attracting new residents.
[Image: Bellemeade Walkable Watershed Courtesy of Skeo]
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