Pedestrian Mall Madness

the benefits of widening sidewalks or creating pedestrian plazas

by: Kinzy Janssen


    It’s been proven: when people leave the insular environment of The Car, they interact with the world. They socialize. They shop, both indoors and outdoors. They plunk down at a café patio. They are more willing (and able!) to follow whims, being 20 times smaller than your average automobile, and infinitely easier to “park.” (Basically, pedestrians in pedestrian-only territory exhibit the ideal moods and ease of mobility that shopkeepers look for in a potential customer.)

    Areas that are designated for pedestrians, commonly called Pedestrian Malls, are often enacted in areas where storefronts already line the streets, in downtown hubs where a little bit of breathing space goes a long way. While automobile traffic is prohibited, emergency vehicles do have access. Delivery vehicles do their part by using side streets and back alleys, and observing narrow drop-off hours.

    Though some cities in the U.S. have taken the initial bold step to cut off small blocks or lengths of road to auto traffic in favor of more foot traffic, European cities are at the forefront of this phenomenon, as many view dominant car traffic as dirty, noisy, dangerous, and increasingly irresponsible toward the planet.

    Jay Walljasper, a prominent writer on the topic of redesigning our cities who spoke at a Downtown Eau Claire Inc. ceremony in February, has spent much of his life examining the why and how behind the magic of European cities – beyond the obvious charm of centuries-old architecture (which we obviously can’t reproduce).

    Much of it has to do with an attitude toward cities as spaces for people – rather than “conduits for cars,” in Walljasper’s words. Some Norwegian cities require cars entering the city to pay a toll; one of them used the extra income to build a pedestrian boulevard. Copenhagen, Denmark is home to the longest pedestrian mall in the world, which bustles with street performers, vendors, and casual shoppers. Eliminating street traffic transformed an uncomfortable urban space into a vibrant hangout. New York City is already home to Times Square, a popular tourist destination and pedestrian space, and Mayor Bloomberg recently approved the creation of nine more similar plazas.

    And the numbers reinforce the observable benefits. Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, and Munich have experienced a 50 percent increase in visitor traffic since the designation of pedestrian areas. Sales, too, increased – by 25 to 40 percent – in stores whose owners initially opposed the change. Do not underestimate the power of a storefront window.

    Admittedly, the aforementioned examples are foreign. But transformative ideas and perspectives such as these are not new to our hometown. Twice since 1968, plans have been assembled to introduce public square-type areas into our downtown, at the request of the city. First, a consulting firm from Chicago rendered maps that included a pedestrian “Plaza” on East Grand Avenue between Barstow and Graham. In the early 00s, Hyett-Palma, a design firm specializing in the “economic enhancement of downtowns and older business districts” wanted to open up foot traffic for the block just east of Farwell Street between City Hall and the library. Today, for what it’s worth, we’re proposing a change – different in location, but similar in scope. Maybe in the 60s with the growth of the suburbs and shopping malls, this was too radical to swallow. Now, however, with concerns about global warming and obesity, sparing some space for the individual at the expense of the car isn’t so strange. Many cities are already stepping in that direction.

    But it’s not just about shutting down car traffic. Some of these changes can be had by simply widening sidewalks – allowing room for café tables, retail racks, and more greenery. In Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs does not underestimate the power of a well-designed sidewalk. “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalks are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

    Pedestrian malls can also be used as political and cultural spaces, gathering people into a unique, safe environment for community dialogue.

10 Cities with "Street Environments" Worth Striving for « PREV   NEXT » Asking for Alfresco