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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The St. Louis Mile: Longer Than 5,280 Feet?

There are several factors in what makes a place walkable.

Citing my own mix of experience in studying Jane Jacobs and urbanism, as well as being a pretty well-travelled pedestrian in both St. Louis and New Orleans, I would list the following on my "walkability" check list:
  • Manageable building heights, with any towers stepped back from the "base". Personally, for both walking and living, I prefer roomier and quainter residential districts and neighborhood-scale commercial areas to mid- and high-rise districts anyway.
  • The street should either be narrow enough to slow traffic, or have traffic slow enough to make me feel safe crossing right after a yellow light.
  • Of course, street trees serve multiple purposes for pedestrians: beautification, shade, rain barriers, buffer from cars, etc.
  • Seeing other people walking or having other visual interest and activity around makes walking less monotonous.
  • Building designs, from block to block, are hopefully varied and interesting as much as the activity on the street.

But the most important point is that there be a lot of corners. As a friend of mine here in New Orleans noted, corners are the lifeblood of urbanism. A plurality of them means more opportunities for neighborhood commerce and exchange, whether that's said in the literal sense (retail, restaurant, etc.) or the sense of community, wherein people "run into" one another and strike up conversations upon turning a corner.

Street corners force automobiles and other traffic to be more vigilant, especially the more of them there are and the more automobiles clamoring to get on one of the main roads. Almost no matter what, corners display the visual complexity of urban life. The best moment as a pedestrian (especially a leisurely pedestrian not in a time crunch) is to happen upon a busy corner and to be literally drawn in each direction to the point of having to halt in the middle of the sidewalk to decide if that corner over there merits a jaunt just to check things out.

In St. Louis, I think automatically to:

View Larger Map

Or perhaps less obviously:

View Larger Map

Either way, my "explorer" alarm goes off when I see such interesting things on all four corners (bonus points go to traffic circles that form super-intersections that remain pedestrian-friendly).

The reality is that St. Louis doesn't meet all of my requirements for full pedestrian comfort just yet. That's all right, as many areas are slowly getting there (Forest Park Southeast, Tower Grove South along Morgan Ford, etc.). Yet one problem with St. Louis's corner-making potential is that the blocks that feed into the mixed-use districts tend to be too long. In nearly all areas outside of St. Louis's old Creole street grid (Soulard, Old North, and Downtown), we have long "Victorian" blocks that were laid out with the notion of keeping activity (whether that activity is through pedestrians, streetcars, or vehicles) on shorter main roads with more corners.

To return to Maryland and Euclid in the Central West End:

The green line (North Euclid between Maryland and Pershing) is 477 feet.
The red line (Pershing Place between Kingshighway and Euclid) is 855 feet.

You'll notice that the "walkable" block (north-south) is Euclid, while the residential streets are nearly double the length and therefore less walkable. That means I have to amble twice as far to find the activity and vibrancy than if I were walking down Euclid (throw on top of this argument the fact that private or closed-off streets make a lot of pedestrians feel uncomfortable and unwelcome). Cherokee's situation is reversed in directionality, but is the same for all practical purposes. North-south streets are long, while intersecting east-west blocks with more commercial uses are short. It seems ingenious, and does contribute to walkable "strips" of activity.

But my contention is not that Cherokee, or Euclid, are not walkable streets. I feel that the city as a whole has committed the number one sin of walkability: making distances seem farther than they really are.

I've noted on this blog before the issue with long blocks (Jane Jacobs is not a fan, either). For drivers and for pedestrians, they offer fewer routes to get to the same place, thereby concentrating activity on the main drags. This is great for the driver of a vehicle who wants to, say, park on the northern end of Euclid (say, Delmar), get out of a car, and walk the strip down to Maryland Avenue. But for those who live technically within a sensible American walkable range (1/2 mile), their options for getting to Euclid and Maryland are probably insufficiently diverse as to ensure they walk every time if they still own a car. It doesn't help that it's often not very difficult to find a parking spot anywhere in St. Louis. That's a separate (albeit related) issue that I hear a lot of urbanists comment upon. I hear less about the perception of distance in St. Louis, which may be more related to long blocks than we think. A study is definitely needed.

To wit: when friends from St. Louis visit New Orleans, I usually forewarn them that when I say we're walking to a place that's "only 12 blocks away", it means we're roughly "six St. Louis blocks" from our destination. The number sounds scary to the inexperienced pedestrian, but the constant interest of the intersecting streets and their corners (not to mention the activity and the nearly universal human scale architecture) ease the pain a lot. For St. Louis, I fear a mile seems much beyond the traditional 5,280 feet metric in pedestrian psychology.

Maybe one reason folks don't talk about the problem of long blocks in St. Louis is that, well, it's an intractable one. Few people these days would argue we need to tear down houses in Tower Grove Heights to create new corners and through-ways (I wouldn't!). And pedestrian pathways, while nice features on overly long blocks, usually suffer from a look of privacy and, (as in the Northampton neighborhood's walk ways) and do not create corners in the traditional sense.

We could look to this interesting case out of the suburbs of New Orleans for some of our more tattered neighborhoods: the "Goodbee Square" in Covington, Louisiana. In this system, a grid is staggered to make north-south travel (in this case) inefficient for vehicles. While the article goes on to suggest that pedestrian paths should be created for such a system to make walking easier, a slight modification of such a grid could produce logical pedestrian paths, more corners, and at the same time make sure the new roads aren't used as cut-throughs exclusively. See below:

For intact neighborhoods, it's a matter of getting more people walking and returning corner mixed-use properties back to commercial life. Even if the grid itself can't be altered, a return to widespread commercial properties will still lend each block with a solid corner a degree of urban excitement, randomness, and possibility of discovery that St. Louis so needs.

It's a matter of public art, whether on sidewalks, in varied tree plantings, on the streets, fire hydrants, in gardens, even streetlights...St. Louis needs much more unexpected bursts of color and life.

Some neighborhoods, such as Forest Park Southeast, Downtown, and Old North, have various forms of themed walking trails. These are delineated by signs and markers. They make the unsuspecting pedestrian passer-by curious and might spawn further exploration. In other neighborhoods, removing concrete barriers and allowing vehicular traffic back through will strip these streets of their "semi-private" status and encourage more walkers. And I'm always an advocate of re-styling or removing altogether certain members of our much too intrusive interstate system, which creates wide psychological gaps as well (how far apart do Shaw and old McRee Town seem to you?).

The best way to reduce the St. Louis mile, if you're interested, is to walk anyway. Active streets are interesting streets. But it wouldn't hurt for you to create that interesting sidewalk art. Or plant that garden. Or plan the walking trail. Or lobby to patch up our tattered street grid. By then, hopefully walking will be so pleasant we won't even be thinking about how many more steps and blocks it is to that ultimate destination.


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