The city of Decatur has emerged as a national leader in promoting active living as an essential building block of a sustainable community. After more than a quarter century of policy making and of programs designed to strengthen community connections and revitalize its downtown, the city has become a place where people enjoy getting around on foot, whether they are going to work, shopping, or attending a special event in the town square.
Decatur didn’t start out with the specific goal of promoting healthy lifestyles when it decided to focus on making the downtown and residential neighborhoods more walkable. The strategy evolved out of the city’s response to hard times. During the 1960s and 1970s, the city steadily lost population: a boom in highway building, new subdivisions, shopping malls, and office parks in the suburbs drew people and businesses away from the city center, and many downtown businesses moved or closed. By 1980, the downtown business community was on the verge of collapse.
City leaders realized they needed to engage the public in saving Decatur’s downtown, and started addressing the problem by asking residents to envision Decatur’s future. Through a series of roundtable discussions and surveys, walkability emerged as a priority. In response to public opinion, the local government planned and invested accordingly. Both the mayor and city manager saw how creating a community that caters to pedestrians and bicyclists would help to draw people to the city center, thus meeting the challenges of the times as both an economic development strategy and a way to connect people with their neighbors.
The openness of the revitalization process led to the adoption of three master plans—The Decatur Town Center Plan in 1982, the Decatur Strategic Plan in 2000, and the Community Transportation Plan in 2008. These long-term plans provided a north star for the city, aligning public input with the city’s planning and investment.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the city invested in sidewalks and other amenities designed to encourage people to view downtown as a transit-accessible, pedestrian-friendly gathering place. New restaurants, shops, and workplaces opened, and the city started hosting live music and other regular public events in the courthouse square. By the mid-2000s, residential development caught up with civic improvements and growth in downtown businesses. Hundreds of condominiums, townhouses, and apartments were built within walking distance of restaurants, shops, and transit.
By improving Decatur’s streetscape and increasing neighborly interaction on sidewalks, in the town square, and in community gardens, city leaders managed to preserve the small-city ambiance that the public valued while simultaneously encouraging the routine physical activity that keeps people healthy.