Tuesday, February 5

Would a pedestrian zone work in Missoula?

(Herein I indulge in some wandering speculations)

During the heady urban renewal days of the 60's and 70's, scores of towns and cities jumped on the pedestrian mall bandwagon and closed several blocks of their downtowns to automobiles. Downtown areas around the country were facing intense market pressure from new retail locations propping up on the outskirts, and they were facing the prospect of losing the battle entirely. Idealist urban planners, who were envisioning a long-term strategy of carless cities, and hard-minded business owners, who desperately needed to compete with the suburban malls, were able to agree on a strategy. Pedestrian malls were prescribed as the miracle drug for urban decay.

Most of them were failures, financially at least. Of the 200 pedestrian mall experiments around the country, only 30 continue to exist. The original trailblazer, Kalamazoo, Michigan, finally converted back into a conventional street after four decades of trying to make it work. Original proponents overlooked how important automobile traffic continued to be to the American public. Even while these districts were thriving in Europe and South America, the United States did not seem like fertile ground for the same economic strategy. Textbooks have acknowledge this phase in history and have largely written it off as a mistake.

Yet, it's too simplistic to dismiss the idea entirely into the dustbin of history. There were many complex factors contributing to the sickness of downtowns, and it could be difficult to tease apart the impact of pedestrian malls from other problems. And where pedestrian zones have worked they have worked quite well. Two places that I have some familiarity with Burlington, Vermont and Charlottesville, Virginia have created thriving cultural centers around their pedestrian malls. Not only are they economically successful, but they have become emblematic of the city itself and offer a communal focal point to its citizens. They are an important tourist draw, and they highlight some of the history particular to their own context.

Other pedestrian areas are also models of success. Pearl Street in Boulder has an impressive mix of uses, and has apparently been attracting tech start-up companies. State Street in Madison, Wisconsin spans several blocks between the college campus and the state capitol. They have opted for a hybrid plan allowing buses, taxis, and police cars. Several others offer a variety of different nuances.

It would seem to be possible, with a thirty year track record on display, to identify the traits that have set the positive cases apart from the negatives. First, many of the surviving malls are located in mid-sized college towns. Universities not only provide a sizable population of people who have minimal access to automobiles, but they also tend to generate a cultural atmosphere and creative energy necessary to maintain a centralized social area. Secondly, many of the pedestrian malls are located in towns with a strong commitment to public transportation. There has to be some way to compensate for the inevitable loss of parking in pedestrian zones. Thirdly, the downtown had to exhibit a certain level of vitality before the project began. The malls that have failed were in downtowns often too far gone already to be propped up by a mere design transformation. I've also heard someone speculate that an "outdoorsy" attitude of the people is an important element.

It's also worth noting that things change. Cultures shift, and the economic forces working now are different than they were 30 year ago. Are we more equipped for a designated carless zone now than we were in the latter days of the 20th century?

Back to the question, does Missoula fit the conditions of a town that could sustain a pedestrian district? And if so ... where would be the best location?


Catnapping said...

you mention that one of the reasons such zones fail is because of the automobile's importance to the amarican public.

maybe that's the problem we need to target. maybe we need to start socializing our children to realize just how immoral it is to burn fossil fuels...to choke the air...to kill off every other living thing, just cuz it's temporarily convenient.

maybe it's time to teach our children that the best way to walk is with the smallest and shallowest of footprints. of course, that will screw the one-each, don't-anybody-share, capitalistic culture everyone is convinced is oh-so-holy...but then that's a good thing, too.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks for stopping by, Catnapping. To a degree I think some are starting to see the moral issue with an automobile culture you mention. And if that doesn't get through to people, I think the rising prices at the gas pump may help change some minds.

What makes this so tough is that it's a structural issue. The way things are set up right now, it's really hard (maybe even in some cases irresponsible) for the average person to give up a car, especially for families in the middle-class. For the younger demographic it's much easier. But there's a catch-22 here, because unless more people do opt out of car-dependency its unlikely that we will make many of the structural changes necessary to make that lifestyle easier. Now, that was a convoluted sentence ...