Mike Zimney believes there are good and bad ways to build cities.
The Dickinson Downtown Association brought in the city planning specialist to speak to a group of about 60 Dickinson officials, business owners and others interested in revitalizing downtown Thursday afternoon at the Eagles Club.
“We can still build great places,” Zimney said early into his hour-long presentation, “Designing Great Cities.”
Zimney, who works with Fargo’s Ulteig Engineers, focused on multiple areas, from how the design and structure of a downtown can help draw crowds, to safety and aesthetic problems that have become apparent with urban sprawl.
Studies, he said, have shown that “cookie-cutter” housing developments and commerce areas dominated by large, spread-out stores and giant parking lots are becoming less appealing to people and have lower property values than revitalized downtowns or residential areas built to mimic small towns and tight-knit neighborhoods.
Areas that feature slimmer and slower streets have also been found to be safer than wider roads that encourage faster speeds, he said. He added that neighborhoods that have put an emphasis on planting shade trees over ornamental trees have taken the first step toward a “neighborly” feel where walking is easy and homeowners use their front yards.
He clicked to a slide that showed a row of duplexes where a pair of two-car garages are the main feature. He called the development “socially isolating.”
“This is a neighborhood that’s going to force you inside,” he said.
He then showed a neighborhood where homes were elevated slightly off the street, and featured front porches, backyards, sidewalks and large trees.
“There’s demand for this,” he said. “People pay a premium to live here.”
Steve Josephson, the Dickinson and Stark County planner, said he enjoyed Zimney’s presentation and his ideas for improving downtown Dickinson. Josephson has pointed to Bismarck as an example of how meaningful revitalizing downtown could be to Dickinson.
“That’s one thing we’ve been interested in is looking at,” he said, “something that appears to have been successful in this area.”
Kristi Schwartz, president of the Dickinson Downtown Association and owner of Dickinson’s Allstate Insurance Agency on First Street West downtown, said bringing in Zimney is another step in an effort to revitalize downtown and help shape new ideas about urban planning.
“The goal is to get the thought process out there to get people to think differently,” Schwartz said, “especially with a town that’s growing like Dickinson is. It’s important that people think about all the different perspectives, and Mike gave us one different perspective today.”
While driving around Dickinson on Thursday, Zimney said he was surprised at how spread out residential areas are from commerce and urban areas. He also used Third Avenue West near the Prairie Hills Mall area and examples of strip malls in Fargo as examples of aesthetically unpleasing urban commerce areas.
“There’s a ton of development that’s really far from your urban core and that’s a huge expense,” he said. “That’s the one thing I was really shocked to see. How far and how leapfrogged the development is.”
However, he pointed to Dickinson’s Alive@5 weekly summer downtown street fair as a unique example of the city taking advantage of its downtown and people’s willingness to go there.
“You hold those type of events in areas that are built for people,” he said. “If you hold that event in a parking lot, no one would show up.”