In last week’s Star Tribune article on downtown parking, this blog was quoted vaguely referring to the “very subtle things” that architects and city planners can do that “communicate to you [whether or not a given route is a] good place to walk.” A smart critic of this statement might ask themselves: What exactly are these mysterious, subtle tactics by which designers of our urban spaces can trick/lure/entice us into walking? And furthermore, what exactly do we mean by a “good” place to walk anyway? (Another question, to be addressed in a later post, might be why it’s so important that our downtown prioritizes pedestrians in the first place.)
Lucky for us, architect/designer Steve Mouzon has been writing about just these questions, asking if we can actually quantify and measure what makes a “good” place to walk, and under what conditions people will decide to walk a given distance instead of drive.
The argument he’s making is essentially that the distances people will walk to get from one place to another vary widely depending on the surrounding environment. While travelers might be willing to walk up to two miles to get from one place to another in a densely built, high walk-appeal city like London or Paris, that distance shrinks to as low as 100 feet when a shopper is confronted with the prospect of walking across the vast stretches of pavement that often connect big box retail chains.
Mouzon’s walk appeal “measurables” include, among other things: 1) frequent view changes; 2) street enclosure (buildings on both sides of the street that make the space feel as comfortable as “an outdoor room”); 3) shelter from the elements (awnings, porch roofs, galleries, etc.); 4) frequent landmarks/goals along the way (similarly, you’re more likely to continue reading this post if it’s broken up into short, punchy paragraphs); and 5) side streets that are nearly as enticing as main streets.
(For a smart analysis of Mouzon’s walk appeal theory, check out Kaid Benfield’s take over at Atlantic Cities.)
Minneapolis has had great success in drawing pedestrians to Nicollet Mall by essentially using all of the above tactics. But as soon as you venture away from this stretch, you’re hard pressed to find streets flush with pedestrians (though Hennepin Ave. occasionally comes close). One reason for this is that many of our shops and storefronts are clustered in indoor malls (i.e., Gaviidae Common) connected by the Skyway, rather than lining the streets where they would be part of the “frequent view changes” Mouzon refers to. Another reason is that we’ve designated only a few areas of downtown (Nicollet/Hennepin/Washington Aves.) as places where these kinds of considerations should be enacted, corralling pedestrians onto only a few streets while leaving the spaces between them devoid of much that would lure pedestrians.
Lastly, of course, is the matter of all of this surface parking (140 parking lots account for about one-third of total downtown land). Surface parking lots fail nearly every one of Mouzon’s measurables. The views are bleak and monotonous, street-scapes are flat, gray, and unenclosed, and there’s no shelter from sun or rain. If the city wants to make the kinds of changes Mouzon describes that will draw people out of their cars, out of the skyways, and onto the streets, then condensing all that surface parking is job number one.