Creating vibrant street life

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February 13, 2013
By: Hilary Reeves
Hilary Reeves

I recently started reading “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” by Jeff Speck, one of the co-authors of a landmark book, “Suburban Nation.” Speck is an urban planner. In his new book, he writes about changes happening (slowly) in the ways that cities are designed, transforming them from auto zones to streetscapes friendly to more than one way of getting around. Streetscapes welcome people walking, make space for bicycles, include easier transit options, and make “downtown living possible for a broader range of people.”

Speck grew up in the 1970s, when it was much more common than today for kids to walk to school and before an explosion in driving and car ownership that meant a steady upward trend line in driving — a trend line that started to flatten in the late 1990s. Younger people today are driving less and less. Whereas once suburbia was the place to be, urban spaces are now preferred by two of the biggest population demographics — millennials and their parents, whom Speck calls “front-end boomers.”

Millennials, as a group, tend first to choose where they want to live, then look for a job. Speck says “77 percent plan to live in America’s urban cores.” What’s the attraction? Street life, the opportunity for chance encounters, a social life that is not accessible only by car.

There is a lot of un-doing, re-thinking, and re-claiming involved in making places people want to be. New York City, already known for lively street life, has in the last few years dramatically reclaimed portions of the street to create public space. Red tables and chairs, open for anyone’s use, now fill space in Times Square that used to be for driving. New York City found that open space, once created, was claimed almost immediately by people who clearly craved a place to stop, rest, talk, check messages, etc.

Speck focuses on walking as the best measure of whether a city delivers street life. And he says it takes more than better sidewalks to deliver. His book  (which I’ve only just started) opens with a General Theory of Walkability. Basically, for a walk to be good, there are four conditions: “it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.”

Useful means things are nearby and arranged so that it’s possible to walk to them. Safe means not only good infrastructure but also whether things feel safe. Comfortable is about the fabric of buildings and streets and whether they tend to create outdoor living rooms or just blank open space. Interesting means that streets are good to look at and active.

There are economic advantages of more walkable places:  1) “urban living is appealing to young creatives”; 2) “pro-urban segments of the population are becoming dominant, creating a spike in demand that is expected to last for decades”; 3) living the “walkable life” costs less, which means more money is available to spend locally.

With these thoughts in mind, here are five examples in Minneapolis of rethinking the streetscape:

— Open Streets. The first Open Streets in Minneapolis happened in June 2011, when two miles of Lyndale Avenue South was closed to automobile traffic for several hours of a Sunday. The event redefined the sense of space for a diverse multitude of people walking, riding bicycles, and more. What the city first greeted as a challenge and almost an affront, it now embraces. Three cheers to the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition for launching the Open Streets movement here.  

— 4th Avenue riverfront playground in the North Loop. The neighborhood association worked with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the National Recreation and Parks Association to repurpose a section of park to be a playground for the growing crowd of kids living downtown.

— Redesigning 7 corners, near the West bank campus of the U of M. This intersection has a lot of street life, with people walking and on bicycles. But it’s also a truck route and full of traffic at rush hour. The City and Hennepin County are working on ways to make it safer for all road users.

— Streetcars. Streetcar lines typically run about two to three miles in length and are ideally suited for corridors with many destinations. Streetcar studies are underway in Minneapolis along Nicollet Avenue, Central Avenue, Lake Street/Midtown Greenway, and along Broadway in North Minneapolis.

— More bike lanes mean safer walking. The vast expansion of on-street bike routes in Minneapolis has helped move bicycle riders off of sidewalks and facilitate the easy access that creates street life. Much of this expansion was funded through the federal nonmotorized transportation pilot program known locally as Bike Walk Twin Cities, which also helped fund Nice Ride Minnesota bicycle-sharing. (Full disclosure:  I work for Transit for Livable Communities/Bike Walk Twin Cities.)

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.