Some experts on the Blue Zones team — Dan Burden and Samantha Thomas — have come to Shawnee this week to assess Shawnee's potential. Focusing on aspects of mobility, the duo on Tuesday took to the streets, along with more than 40 residents in tow, evaluating downtown to both see what the area has to offer and to share ideas, to best implement the program.

THE ISSUE: Blue Zones — after launching a partnership with Shawnee's Avedis Foundation last month — is touring the city this week to learn more about the community to tailor its plan of action here.

LOCAL IMPACT: Oklahoma is ranked as one of the worst states in the nation in overall wellbeing. The Blue Zones program — a wellbeing initiative to improve health outcomes — has estimated that the area could see $44 million in medical cost savings over the next 10 years through the program, as well as many other benefits.

Some experts on the Blue Zones team — Dan Burden and Samantha Thomas — have come to Shawnee this week to assess Shawnee's potential. Focusing on aspects of mobility, the duo on Tuesday took to the streets, along with more than 40 residents in tow, evaluating downtown to both see what the area has to offer and to share ideas, to best implement the program.

The team is surveying the built environment in Shawnee and Pottawatomie County to identify opportunities for making streets and public spaces more walkable, bike-friendly and livable, Senior Manager Erika Graves, Blue Zones Project Operations, said.

During the stroll downtown, the pair offered several comments and suggestions.

“We are really excited about the work going on already downtown,” Thomas said, “because what we see and know is that our historic downtowns, where you've had a large history, you have great connected streets and neighborhoods surrounding the downtowns — (these) are the places we have to reinvest back into our community and attract all future growth back into our downtowns.”

She said downtowns hold the traditional, walkable human scale environments.

“And along with being the historic and cultural parts of a place, they are also the economic entrance,” she said.

In many cities and towns, Thomas said, it's just a matter of how to re-power the downtown.

“A lot of it is really through the lens of walkability and place-making,” she said. “A lot of great work has started.”

She suggested bringing more greenery downtown. Trees would not only add to the aesthetic appeal of the area, she said, but would offer much-needed shade — both are qualities that can be a draw for pedestrians.

Thomas said one popular method for bringing more trees into a (tight-spaced) area like many downtowns is the use of tree wells in parking spaces — just like the bump-outs that were just installed as a part of Streetscape.

City Planner Justin DeBruin shared with Thomas and residents that was the reasoning behind some of the decisions that were made while planning the Streetscape project.

“Based on a study that I was part of in 2012, at maximum occupancy, our public parking spaces (downtown) were at about 30 percent,” he said. “You can't focus on having the same parking on Main Street like you have at Walmart — it's a lot more walkable than that.”

He also said most of the stop lights along Main Street were taken out and made into four-way stops at those intersections to slow down traffic.

Thomas agreed with the choice; she said the ideal business speed for drivers downtown is 19 mph.

“You want people to have the awareness and the comfort to feel like they can park or un-park,” she said, “and that they promote good yielding behavior so that when people are wanting to cross the street it feels comfortable and safe.”

An added treatment she proposed was to place mini circles (a smaller version of a roundabout) in particular intersections which creates the yielding behavior in a slow-speed environment, and motorists don't ever come to a full stop unless they are allowing a person to cross the street in front of them.

“Many communities using the mini circles are finding a 90-percent reduction in personal-injury crashes,” she said. “It also quiets the area because you don't have the starts/stops (because of braking and accelerating).”

Once traffic behavior becomes more accommodating for pedestrians — and some other tools are maximized — downtown could thrive in a new way.

“We all need places to come to where we can informally and formally bump into one another and socialize, think about lingering,” Thomas said.

When thinking about age-friendly communities and wanting people to stay in the downtown (area), sitting becomes really important, she said.

Benches and other informal sitting places where people can take pause

“I know many places struggle with trying to bring back the investment of downtown and the concern of putting benches in then homeless people will be here,” she said, “but we've found is that actually the more you create an environment that attracts people and the more people that mix together, you will begin to see more sharing of the space.”

She said, “you're not going to oust one group of people, but we should always be building with the love and celebration of place versus the fear of who it might attract and there's a lot of different design principles on how you can do it well so you're promoting the right type of turnover in the use of that space.”

Burden also had specific suggestions to make the area more people-friendly.

On their grading scale, Burden said Shawnee has a real issue with transparency — scoring lower than he has ever seen working with more than 6,000 communities.

“Our No. 1 emotion is to remain secure and feel welcome,” he said.

A good way to make people feel more secure in a space is by the use of lots of glass in storefronts so they feel like someone's looking out for them, Burden said.

“We recommend 70 percent to 90 percent glass on the ground level of the storefronts,” he said.

Some of the standards that communities have been living by for decades, or longer, are often for reasons that no longer apply to today's world, he said.

Burden said it's important to look at things from a fresh perspective and seek all the options.

“We shouldn't just do it because that's how it's always been done,” he said.

Backed-in parking on the street is an option, he said.

“Think about it; it has many positives,” he said. “The trunk is closest to the store for loading, when children get out of the car they are directed away from the road — not toward it, and it's easier to pull out when leaving.”

An inexpensive way to offset all the added windows in storefronts is by using distinctive awnings, he said.

Burden wrapped up the tour with several key points to consider: transparency — encourages the feeling of security; enclosure — like a sidewalk between buildings and trees offers a natural sense of surroundings; imageability — a community that is character-driven is memorable; complexity — an area that has many facets or layers will ensure that something new will be experienced by residents each time they visit; and human scale — the set of qualities associated with an area is what will draw the community together in that place.

This morning, the group plans to gather at City Hall to begin a driving tour of Pottawatomie County. In the afternoon, the team will take a biking tour of Shawnee, leaving from Pottawatomie County Peddler’s Bike Shop.

These tours are scheduled to address biking potential, as well as help Blue Zones team members familiarize themselves with the area and how residents habitually navigate through it.

The effort began in January when the Avedis Foundation, Blue Zones, LLC and Healthways, Inc., launched the Blue Zones Project in Pottawatomie County — after a preliminary visit in October.

The team held focus groups the first week of March to find out more about the area and residents. The public was involved in discussing well-being across sectors in the community in its first opportunity for participation with the Blue Zones Project in Pottawatomie County. Graves said attendance at the focus groups yielded close to 170 residents.

During focus group discussions, coordinators posed questions to panels of Shawnee residents, trying to get a feel for what the community has to work with and where it wants to go.

Based on feedback, the Blue Zones team is compiling a list of the city's strengths, challenges and opportunities.

You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.