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How can the pedestrian malls of the past inform today’s shared streets?

By Stephan Schmidt, Bloomberg CityLab, September 9, 2021

“In the 1960s and 70s, many U.S. cities began experimenting with closing off streets to traffic to stem the tide of urban decline and the fleeing of residents and businesses to the suburbs. In places as geographically diverse as Miami and Rochester and as different in size as New York City and St. Albans, West Virginia, the ‘pedestrian mall’ swept North America (and beyond).

“With colleagues at Cornell University, I analyzed 125 pedestrian malls from this earlier generation of vehicle-restricted street intervention to better understand why some are still with us. The average lifespan of a U.S. pedestrian mall was about two decades, we found in our study (paywall). Just 43 examples are still open.

“We established four key findings.

“Youth matters … The proximity to a university or college and a continuous supply of highly mobile residents paved the way for the long-term success of malls in places like Boulder (University of Colorado) and Burlington (University of Vermont) […]

“Foot traffic is important: Just as the presence of a college provides a very localized source of pedestrian traffic, a destination within walking distance had a similar effect. A pedestrian mall close to a beach — such as Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which opened in 1965 — was 77 percent more likely to survive than one that was not. […]

“Sprawl kills: We found that there is a direct relationship between successful pedestrian malls and local population density. […]

“Bigger isn’t necessarily better: The length of a pedestrian mall is negatively correlated to lifespan […]

“Even if [city officials] can’t do much about factors like demographics, foot traffic, and density in the short term, they can utilize design interventions to create more desirable pedestrian environments [in permanent, pandemic-inspired shared streets]. These include creating a sense of enclosure and requiring the use of ground-floor windows to increase transparency. Protection from the elements, via awnings or tree cover, also helps, as does providing a variety of seating options. Planners can increase visual appeal by adding planters, vegetation, and unique paving materials like cobblestones. Programmed activities can create a more stimulating pedestrian experience. Coordinating and integrating adjacent land uses (retail in particular) can avoid physical isolation.”

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