Pedestrian malls, once thought as a way to save declining downtowns, are now viewed as a failed experiment in urban design. Of the over 200 communities that had closed off blocks to automobile traffic around 180 have since reopened their streets. Despite these failure some cities such as Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Fulton County, Ga., are now considering the concept.
Kalamazoo, Michigan is credited with being the first U.S. city to convert a downtown street into a pedestrian mall in 1959. According to an article by Alan Loomis "the plan developed by the architecture and planning firm Victor Gruen Associates was designed deal with the inability of downtown streets to handle the postwar influx of automobiles. Car ownership exploded dramatically in the 1950s, a result of America’s postwar prosperity and the Federal government’s support of home ownership in new suburbs. The resulting commuting patterns brought unprecedented numbers of cars into downtowns without adequate streets or parking. Traffic congestion, polluted streets, unfriendly sidewalks, and inefficient urban centers were the consequence". Additionally, Kris Rzepcyynski, a Kalamazoo public library researcher, noted that “the growth of suburban shopping centers raised fears that downtown would lose its place as the business and cultural heart of the community. Many other communities followed suite, desperate to bring back business and counter the decline in real estate values brought about by the development of shopping centers and malls in the suburbs”.
Despite the high hopes for pedestrian malls, research conducted by the Downtown Memphis commission has shown that; in most cases, pedestrian malls in North America have “experienced negative economic results from the original conversion, including an increase in the vacancy rates along the mall and a decline in the retail mix”. Additionally, retail focus shifts from “comparison and destination goods/services,” such as department stores and high-end retail, to convenience stores. Kalamazoo had similar results and Rzepcyynski noted that the City finally re-opened the street in 1989 because of “a lack of convenient parking, the exposure of shoppers to bad weather, public perceptions of crime, and less shopping diversity”. Many other cities including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have also re-opened their pedestrian malls.
Burdick Street, Kalamazoo before and after development of the pedestrian mall
Why Pedestrian Malls Fail
There are many reasons for the failure of pedestrian malls. Tod Newcombe, Senior Editor of the journal Governing believes that one of the main reasons for these failures was that “many of the pedestrian malls were ill-planned and had little purpose ….and because so few people lived downtown, the malls became lifeless after work, attracting crime and loiterers, rather than large crowds.”
Other reasons for these failures include:
- bad urban design;
- lack of convenient parking and mass transit to the area;
- lack of a major anchor to drive traffic to the area,
- long block lengths, and
- perhaps most surprising, being located in a large city.