A Placemaking Journal

Pedestrian Malls are So 20th Century

Scott Doyon
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I don’t like pedestrian malls. There, I said it. And it’s not because there aren’t some good ones, because clearly there are.

Let me explain. By the mid 60s, America’s race to the suburbs had left many downtowns in tough shape. Once vibrant streets, alive with the sounds of community and commerce, began to find themselves empty and foreboding after 5pm. And not that it mattered either, because the streets themselves — increasingly reengineered over the preceding decade to expedite the daily flow of workers into and out of the city — were no longer a place where any rational person would ever want to be anyways.

It was unprecedented. So it’s no surprise that, when faced with such challenges and no clear model for taking them on, many places went searching for a silver bullet cure-all. Which they found, in the form of the pedestrian mall.

Lock and load.

The idea seemed solid. Give multiple blocks over to pedestrians and, in the process, take on the new suburban malls with a compelling destination to draw crowds back downtown. Only, in most cases, it didn’t really work out that way.

Here’s why: The problem — at least the most visible one — was that we had relinquished our streets to the automobile, relegating all other users to second or third class status. We had taken the complexity of the public realm and dumbed it down into a single-use car sewer. Cars good, walking bad.

So how did we try to fix that? By doing the exact same thing, except in reverse. This time it was cars bad, walking good, which presents a similar set of problems because community doesn’t thrive in the all-or-nothing extremes of complexity reduction. Instead, the workable solutions tend to be the ones found in the messy middle ground, where culture and commerce intersect and competing interests are confronted and reconciled.

Now, that doesn’t mean that pedestrian malls are automatically doomed to fail. Some did thrive and continue to do so. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, we have a better understanding of why. Here in the U.S., the ones that work are the exception, not the rule, and they require some particular characteristics to flourish: high levels of tourist traffic occurring for reasons other than the mall is one; large populations of pedestrians (such as universities or dense intown housing) in close, walkable proximity is another. Consider Charlottesville, Virginia’s downtown mall or Miami’s Lincoln Road or NYC’s Times Square. Each benefits from not one but both of these conditions. As a result, foot traffic stays heavy and businesses can weather the hit of reduced accessibility.

For everyone else — the everyday places where pedestrian malls drove the final stake into an already dying downtown — there are lessons learned. And, thankfully, what’s in evidence today with our next generation efforts to humanize our streets and shared spaces is an increasing look at accommodation rather than prohibition. Everyone gives a little, everyone gets a little. Complete Streets, where cars are welcome, but biking and walking still thrive. As does convenience retail.

Today the conversation is about rethinking the street, who’s entitled to it, and how it gets used — which, it turns out, doesn’t have to always be the same way. Flexible street programming, we’re finding, can shift and morph to meet our ever-evolving exercise of community. Even on a day to day basis. Check out the following photos for some examples, all of which came across my desktop in the past week or two.

Photo shared by Danyel Aversenti via Facebook.
Photo shared by David Quick via Facebook.
Photo credit: Ponshop Art Studio, Fredericksburg, VA.
Photo credit: Streetsblog

So, yes, take back the streets. But take ‘em back for everyone. When any one class of user dominates the public realm, we all suffer.

–Scott Doyon

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