Loni Jensen is a millennial, one who works for Hutchinson Community College with current college students. She, like other millennials, likes the opportunity to walk to places close by — and she talks with students who walk to classes at the school located on East Broadway.
Walking, however, comes with a set of challenges.
“From a student perspective, we have a number of students who walk. There are some dangerous crossings in this town,” Jensen said. “ … We (Millennials) want to be connected and not so far removed. It would be great for my kid to be able to walk to school to home — we can't even walk to a park. This town has a lot of parts. Maybe my house is just in a bad location."
For argument's sake, her home is rated at 43 on a 100 point scale at walkscore.com — a rating of “car dependent” and a note of “most errands require a car.” As a whole, Newton scores as a 33 overall, classified as a car-dependent city.
Walk Score measures the walkability of any address using a patented scoring system. For each address, Walk Score analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5 minute walk (.25 miles) are given maximum points.
Newton has scores as low as zero (at 12th and Meridian Streets) and as high as 80 (downtown). Schools in Newton average around a 25, with Newton High School the lowest at nine and Santa Fe 5/6 Center at a 79.
“(My daughter) likes to participate in the safe walks to school every year,” Jensen said. “That is the only day she walks to school during the year. I won't let her walk without me and the group … because it is not safe for her to walk to school and cross First street, that is not happening.”
The scores — both the overall score for Newton and address specific scores — are no surprise to Lori Kessler, a member of the Healthy Harvey Coalition and Harvey County Health Department. She does not take issue with them, but she wants more localized information for the coalition.
Some of that more local information is coming. Next month the coalition is bringing a national expert to town for a workshop. He will train local “auditors” and take a tour of Harvey County to being creating local data.
“We have scores based on how far you are from grocery stores, hospitals or whatever. But when you actually get on the sidewalks, or on bikes, it s really different when you get there and do it and are standing two feet from traffic,” Kessler said.
Kessler said improving the walkability of a community is more than a public safety issue — but one of economic development as well. There is research to back that up.
A study published by the journal “Cities” in 2015 using data from 170 neighborhoods in medium sized cities showed improved walkability has “a positive impact" only on neighborhood housing valuation. The same study claimed walkablilty helped reduce neighborhood crime and foreclosure.
The walkability of a neighborhood can be part of decisions made by real estate buyers, and according to local agent Alex Carbajal is a question buyers are asking more and more often.
“I am hearing 'what can I walk to,' 'what kind of amenities are nearby that I can walk to,'” Carbajal said. “It means a lot to not have to get into a vehicle and drive somewhere. If you can walk there, more people want to do that. People with kids, they want to know there is an opportunity to walk to a park or walk a trail. It is being spoken about more frequently, and that is where everything is headed towards.”
He and Kessler both said the issue of what a prospective home buyer can easily walk to is a key point for millennials.
“They are the largest group coming up with purchasing power and entering leadership. That is what they want,” Carbajal said. “It is being talked about a lot more.”
There are parts of Newton, namely subdivisions, where sidewalks are rare. One of the largest apartment complexes in town, South Park Apartments, ranks a three on Walk Score. The score is based namely on how far it is to run errands — the closest retail to South Park is Wal-Mart (walk score of 39).
However, a locally done audit may not move the needle much, according to Kessler. That is due in part, is a lack of sidewalks in the surrounding subdivisions.
Those areas of town were constructed when, according to Kessler, cars were king.
“Look at the houses themselves, not only is there not a sidewalk, but what is the first thing you see? The garage. Everything was designed for the car,” Kessler said. “That is not what younger generations are wanting."