Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pedestrian malls, cities, and shoppers …

Pedestrian mall    Whither the pedestrian mall?  I considered the paradox of the foot-only shopping thoroughfare as I visited the fairy unsuccessful example of Franklin Street, once upon a time the prime shopping street (here’s an old photo), of downtown Tampa, Florida.  Why have so many of these efforts failed?  Why do some succeed?  And why have cities such Chicago reopened their retail streets, as discussed in this recent article about State Street?    
   Pedestrian ways popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when cities were considered unpleasant places, and the idea of removing traffic was thought to be an attraction.  After all, it works in places such as Florence and Paris’s chic Rule Mouffetard – why not Tampa or Chicago?  The reasons for failure are tiptoed around by many commentators, in my opinion.  Here’s my two cents:  Pedestrian malls haven’t worked as well as they have in many European cities because of the different dynamics of American cities, whose shopping and entertainment attractions simply aren’t as appealing as those elsewhere. 
   Many American cities were in the doldrums in the ‘60s and ’70s, of course, and, in a fit of anti-urbanist sentiment, many cities tried to help their declining retail streets by closing them to auto traffic.  This step only made things worse.  As these streets, which were already shifting toward lower-income patrons only, became “quieter,” this quietude had two unfavorable effects.  First, the quiet exacerbated the unease that middle-class shoppers felt about a somewhat-run-down urban setting.  Second, the quiet and the empty space encouraged homeless sleepers, drunks, and other anti-social persons.  A little movement in these two directions often created vicious circles – a few more homeless sleepers discourage the remaining middle-class shoppers, and so on.  Thus many pedestrian malls turned into blighted areas of closed shops, urine puddles, and no shoppers.  (As, with some exaggeration, Tampa’s Franklin Street was just a few years ago.) 
   The solution?  Bring back the cars.  As the late Jane Jacobs could have told us, city people like bustle and noise, at least in some instances.  Traffic reassures shoppers (and, yes, Americans often like to see a store from their car before stopping) and flips the vicious circle into a virtuous one.  Chicago’s State Street and Washington’s F Street (between 7th and 9th) were revitalized by the return of auto traffic.
  Where do pedestrian malls “work”?  In places where there is especially strong foot traffic, such as tourist towns.  It works in Salem, Mass., and to some extent in Charlottesville, Va., where successful pedestrian malls are created for tourists who shop for souvenirs, and in college towns, where auto-challenged students travel in interactive gangs on their way to pizza.  But the auto-free ideal typically doesn’t work in big, serious cities such as Chicago, Boston, or Tampa. 
  The lesson is counterintuitive, but it makes sense:  To bring back the pedestrian, cities shouldn’t block the car.   Free Franklin Street!

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