What's Up Downtown: What do new trash compactors mean for walkability? (Voices)

Alex Stettinski is executive director for the Downtown Reno Partnership.

Alex Stettinski is executive director for the Downtown Reno Partnership.

In theory, Downtown Reno is the ideal city model for great walkability. It’s compact, and has food, housing and work options all accessible within a short distance, and visitors can get virtually anywhere on foot or via public transportation.

In fact, according to Walkability.com, downtown scores an 86 for walkability on a 100-point scale. The average city only scores 48.

Throwing theory out the window, this definition of walkability (which uses an algorithm and points on a map to calculate pedestrian ease) has its limitations. It’s the urban development equivalent of trying to get to know an area by looking it up on Google Maps.

The more valuable measurement of walkability is abstract. It reaches for those harder-to-quantify cityscape elements, such as aesthetic appeal, safety and visitor engagement. This definition hints at more than just the adequacy of the city layout, but how city-goers are interacting with businesses, open spaces and each other.

And that’s the definition of walkability that the Downtown Reno Partnership is working to apply.

So that is why the Downtown Reno Partnership pushed for the installation of six more solar-powered trash compactors, known as Bigbelly stations, along Virginia Street. Each will cost $5,000, and the DRP and the city of Reno will split the expense.

City trash can installments don’t usually make headlines, but they’re a big deal within business improvement districts like downtown Reno. At least at the DRP, we sure do get excited when funding can be earmarked for additional solar-powered trash compactors.

Not to get too sentimental, but for us, a Bigbelly station is more than a trash can. Beyond keeping rubbish off the sidewalks, frequent Bigbelly placement downtown means pedestrians won’t have to choose between littering or carrying their trash for long stretches.

This translates to greater pedestrian convenience, and fewer litter complaints that we must address. We’d like to hope that every Bigbelly creates a greater opportunity for foot traffic and commerce.

That is what walkability is all about. Even if a Bigbelly can’t instantly solve every economic and urban development problem that we wish it could, they’re certainly a step in the right direction.

Street-side features like our Bigbellys have a significant hand in shaping how visitors interact with the spaces around them when they visit downtown. City architecture can promote safety, aesthetics and engagement, all of which enhance walkability.

Alongside our Bigbellys, the Reno arts scene is another fabulous example of street-side features that promote walkability. In fact, the arts scene is probably downtown’s greatest strength, besides its size.

Even beyond the overtly aesthetic murals and sculptures, smaller downtown elements like decorative wind monitors, arches and bridge railings cater to pedestrian’s needs.

Not only are they well-designed, but they’re functional and enhance visitor enjoyment. Other artistic features even serve a dual purpose; lights wrapped around trees and unique bike rack designs manage to combine safety, usability, and good taste.

But these walkability elements rarely align organically, and that’s where the DRP steps in.

Right now, downtown Reno’s main corridor along Virginia Street faces a slew of walkability challenges. Its lack of storefronts means it must find ways to compensate by adding more visually interesting objects, at least until more relevant stores move in.

The DRP’s Ambassador program and projects, like the installation of additional Bigbellies, tackle those day-to-day problems for pedestrians. But we’ve also made larger pushes to enhance walkability and draw foot traffic to local businesses.

Last September, The DRP donated $130,000 to the city as part of a project to beautify the ReTRAC Plaza. In addition, a $25,000 Bloomberg Grant was added for a mural design on the ReTRAC lid.

With these perpetual improvements, we need a better standard to assess walkability. One useful guide for downtown Reno going forward might be the college student test.

The University of Nevada, Reno sits along the north side of the DRP’s business improvement district; the riverwalk and its related attractions sit at the south side. Truly great walkability downtown means a student (or really anyone visiting) should feel comfortable, and even enjoy, walking from UNR to the river for a weekend outing.

We conducted a survey of students last year in order to gather information about their expectations and preferences downtown. We use it to guide us in making changes like this, so that they feel safer and more motivated to eat, shop and enjoy the area.

So even if solar trash cans don’t sound very exciting now, we hope that it shows how downtown can slowly change over time for the better as long as the community and students are our guide instead of just data points on a map.

“What’s Up Downtown” is a monthly Voices column in the NNBW authored by Alex Stettinski, executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership. Reach him for comment at


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