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An aerial view of the Time Square pedestrian mall surrounded by many illuminated billboards and signs on buildings. There are people walking in the mall area.
The pedestrian mall in Times Square designed by Snøhetta.
Michael Grimm

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Who’s afraid of the pedestrian mall?

To make cities safer and denser, we need to make room for people, not cars. The specter of the 1970s is holding our foot traffic back

Ah, the heady optimism of 1974! On the cover of The Pedestrian Revolution, by Simon Breines and William J. Dean, men in bell-bottoms and women in vests stroll between planters of lush blooms, dine under a purple umbrella, take a tram, always surrounded by blocky towers. “Streets Without Cars,” the subtitle, offers the promise of leisure, sunshine, and family time on some not-so-mean streets.

“Urban society’s growing frustration with the automobile, and the congestion it causes, is a major factor behind the Pedestrian Revolution,” Breines and Dean write. “Pedestrianism enhances our physical well-being both by reducing air and noise pollution and by encouraging, through the creation of urban strollways and urban bikeways, the greater use of footpower.”

Yes, you think. Too true, you nod. And then the publication date sinks in.

We’ve been here before, if here means trying to assert the primacy of the person—the pedestrian, the cyclist, the transit rider—in the matrix of city streets. We’ve been here before if here means realizing that, for the health of the planet, we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.

Once upon a time in the 1960s and 1970s, urban leaders pushed cars out of downtown. Why is it so hard to do that now?

The pedestrian mall was an urban phenomenon, one with a clear boom-and-bust cycle. From 1959 through the early 1980s, more than 200 American cities closed blocks of their downtowns to car traffic. By 2000, fewer than 24 of those original malls remained. The design intervention that was supposed to bring people back from the suburban mall had, instead, exacerbated the very problem it was trying to solve, turning downtowns into autopic, retail-first monocultures rather than pedestrian-first, mixed-use places.

The pedestrian mall remains an urban bogeyman, most often described by synonyms for “doomed.” When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced, way back in 2009, that Broadway would be closed to car traffic in Times and Herald squares, the New York Times responded with this lede: “The pedestrian mall, the urban planner’s failed attempt to revitalize Main Streets during the 1960s and 70s, is back!”

Earlier this month, in a Chicago Tribune story on a proposed Lincoln Park bike lane, the specter of the failed State Street pedestrian mall (1979-1996) was raised as a cautionary tale, despite the fact that banning cars isn’t even part of the Lincoln Park proposal—just a variety of traffic-calming design measures and painted bike lanes. Twenty-plus years after removal, any reduction in car space is seen as the gateway to failed retail, deserted streets, urban doom. In a 2013 Streetsblog Chicago story on State Street, Laura Jones of the Chicago Loop Alliance encapsulated this attitude: “Everything old is new again. But the old-timers would be horrified.”

And when Streetsblog covered the Financial District Neighborhood Association’s “Make Way for Lower Manhattan” plan in May, it referred to the proposal to turn most of the streets between City Hall, South Street Seaport, and Battery Park into 5-mph shared streets as “Amsterdaming” Lower Manhattan—language that suppressed the fact, noted lower in the article, that pedestrian-only streets were proposed for the area way back in 1966, under the Wagner administration. Does making the change European make it more acceptable?

Consider this a psychiatric intervention: to face our fear of pedestrianization, first we must understand its origin.

The man who popularized the downtown pedestrian mall was the same man who popularized the suburban shopping center: Victor Gruen. Sit with that for a minute. In 1954, Gruen’s firm opened Northland shopping center 10 miles outside Detroit, anchored by a branch of the city’s marquee department store, Hudson’s. In 1955, Gruen spoke at the influential Aspen Design Conference, unveiling his revitalization plan for “City X” (actually Fort Worth, Texas), bringing the order of from-scratch development back to the city—and potentially doubling his client base.

The interior of a shopping mall. There are light fixtures hanging about a fountain in the foreground. Shops surround a large walking area.
Designed by Victor Gruen, Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, opened in 1956 and is the oldest fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall in the United States.
Norton & Peel, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Today, many elements of his City X plan read like a “what not to do” list for urban renewal. To save downtown, cities needed ring roads (paid for with federal highway funds), satellite parking decks for tens of thousands of cars, and an underground network of tunnels for trucks. In return, citizens would get a fully pedestrianized set of downtown streets, with planters, benches, fountains, and public art.

“Gone also would be traffic lights and curbs to stumble over,” wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1956, when the city was revealed as the plan’s sponsor. “For bad weather, disabled persons and shoppers burdened with packages Gruen envisioned noiseless, battery-powered shuttle cars similar to those at world’s fairs.”

Asked by the New Yorker in 1956 what he would do for Manhattan, Gruen responded:

Mr. G. envisions bands of superhighways girdling the perimeter of the island, and, just behind them, extending to Third Avenue on the east and to Eighth Avenue on the west, ribbons of multiple-decked parking lots covered over with gardens and broad walks, and, at intervals, apartment houses a hundred and fifty stories high. Down the spine of the island will be grassy malls, skating rinks, outdoor theatres, playgrounds, and more gardens. “The chief means of travel will be walking,” said Mr. G. “Nothing like walking for peace of mind. And, for when our feet get tired, there will be thousands of comfortable benches and scores of charming sidewalk cafés.”

Gruen wasn’t the only leading architect who wanted to impose a hierarchical, designer order on the evolving city. Louis Kahn’s 1952 Traffic Study project for Philadelphia suggested a similar ring of high parking garages “protecting” downtown from the onslaught of cars, as defensive towers had once protected the medieval city. Even when they were putting pedestrians first, the car, physically and psychologically, dominated.

Despite the scale of these proposals, the first pedestrian malls were, relatively speaking, small. In 1959, Gruen’s first downtown project opened on Burdick Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was two blocks long, later expanded to four, and cost only $60,000, paid for by the city and local business owners whose stores fronted the street. As Gruen biographer Jeffrey Hardwick writes, minus the ring roads and parking garages, “Cities saw Gruen’s concept as a cheap and quick fix that would lure suburbanites and their dollars back downtown.”

In the foreground is a fountain with a foot bridge. There are buildings with shops lining the street.
Gruen’s first downtown project on Burdick Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan, circa 1970.
Lance Ferraro

Cities also saw Gruen’s concept as an opportunity for greater control. The new pedestrian malls embraced signage programs, privately funded trash collection and security measures, and the same kind of national brands as the out-of-town malls. In Gruen’s pitch to Fort Worth boosters, he included three stories of hypothetical citizens satisfied by what City X had to offer: a businessman pleased with the orderly downtown, a merchant whose sales were enhanced, and a housewife who took the bus in from the suburbs for a day of errands.

Not represented: workers, downtown residents, children, or people of color. Hardwick again: “The salvation of downtown, Gruen argued, rested on convincing white, middle-class females to return to the city center for shopping.”

As consumer historian Lizbeth Cohen wrote in 1996, suburban shopping centers, like suburban housing developments, were planned to exclude:

When developers and store owners set out to make the shopping center a more perfect downtown, they aimed to exclude from this public space unwanted urban groups such as vagrants, prostitutes, racial minorities, and poor people. Market segmentation became the guiding principle of this mix of commercial and civic activity, as the shopping center sought perhaps contradictorily to legitimize itself as a true community center and to define that community in exclusionary socioeconomic and racial terms.

The space of the mall looks like public space, but with their private cops and rules about loitering and unaccompanied minors, most shopping centers were never truly open. As the same designers moved from the suburbs back into the center, selling downtown’s salvation as a series of design and regulatory moves, what was once publicly policed and publicly maintained public space became something else.

This counterproductive focus outward and upward—on middle-class white people who don’t live in the city—is nowhere more apparent than in the ongoing discussion of Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn. Fulton Street became the crown jewel of Brooklyn shopping in the 1940s. The elevated train that had run down the center of the street was replaced by underground stops on both the BMT and the IRT subway lines. A variety of locally owned shops and discount stores lined the street, with the large Abraham & Strauss department store as its anchor. (It is on Fulton that Eilis Lacey, heroine of Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, gets a job at the fictional Bartocci’s.)

But by 1960, as Rosten Woo writes in his essay in Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall (Woo co-wrote the volume with Meredith TenHoor and Damon Rich), the high-end retailers were being undercut by discount stores. By the 1970s, even lower-end department stores like Korvettes were finding it hard to compete. Retail was bad all over, thanks to the recession: “The owners of Fulton Street’s largest stores perceived the root of the problem differently… white people were making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the street’s shoppers.” Business wasn’t bad—in fact, business on Fulton Street has never been bad—but it didn’t follow the City X scenarios.

The solution, even in dense, popular, transit-rich Brooklyn, was pedestrianization: The Fulton Arcade. In 1979, architect Lee Harris Pomeroy was hired to rationalize the street. For eight blocks, cars would be banned, though buses would still run. Orange cylindrical kiosks and bubbly plexiglas bus shelters, a sans serif signage system, and semicircular benches would turn a city street into a facsimile of a suburban mall. Pomeroy’s first proposal even included climate control: a tensile structure of red fabric to offer shade, like perpetual Christo and Jeanne-Claude Gates.

A fraction of these elements were built. The suburban shoppers never came. And yet, Fulton Mall was a success. Smaller, nimbler retailers kept up with the times as national department stores could not. The 12 nearby subway lines brought shoppers from all over the city. Storefronts were subdivided, so merchants could start small and grow as needed. Pedestrianization made shopping, eating, and hanging out easier—but it didn’t have to invent an attractive urban destination from whole cloth.

“Fulton Street has maintained its place over the years as an important place for shopping in Brooklyn even as trends in shopping have changed. Landlords have stayed in front of the curve,” says Downtown Brooklyn Partnership president Regina Myer. ”I had teenagers that were highly aware [that] when new sneakers came out, they came out on Fulton Street.”

Fulton Mall’s success offers clues as to why only two dozen of 200 pedestrian malls remain from the boom a half century ago. The future of the pedestrian mall is not in trying to save downtown merchants by bringing new shoppers in, but in improving the experience for the shoppers who are already there. To start with, this means not disdaining the people spending money, especially when downtown stores historically served a broad racial and economic spectrum.

As always with urban design, there are multiple social, economic, and design factors at play in the success of shopping districts, which is why raising pedestrian malls as a boogeyman doesn’t make sense in the first place. But three factors stand out: foot traffic, anything-but-car access, and amenities beyond retail.

Pedestrian malls in places with existing foot traffic succeed. A number of these are in college towns—Burlington, Vermont, Charlottesville, Virginia—where there are a lot of young people with time, money, and no cars. But others are in cities—Brooklyn, Minneapolis—where there is enough population density to support both public transportation to downtown and retail, restaurants, and entertainment once you are there. Teaching people to drive downtown to shop didn’t work, but capitalizing on, and improving resources for, existing consumer desire lines did.

A pedestrian plaza in Denver. There are trees, lights, and benches. Stores and restaurants line the street. People are walking in the street.
Denver’s 16th Street Mall, designed by Pei Cobb Freed and Laurie Olin.

Two pedestrian malls that have often been cited as successes have recently undergone, or are in the process of undergoing, renovation. Denver’s 16th Street Mall, designed by Pei Cobb Freed and Laurie Olin, was completed in 1982, but followed the template of most of the 1960s and ’70s malls: for pedestrians, but not by them, seeing pedestrians as tools (consumers) rather than the drivers of the spatial experience. The mall, adjacent to the renovated Union Station, has been popular with tourists, and both visitors and locals use the free electric buses that run its length. But the mall’s distinctive patterned tiles have proved to be both slippery when wet and ill-suited to the Denver climate, and will be replaced next year. There are also plans to widen the sidewalks so that people (and cafes, and kiosks) get more space than the buses, adding trees and lighting and reducing crossings.

Minneapolis’s Nicollet Mall, designed by Lawrence Halprin in 1967 and renovated by James Corner Field Operations in 2017, was also given a pedestrian-friendly makeover, with more trees, more seating, sheltered transit centers, and movable chairs. Walking surfaces are the new branding opportunity: The concrete sidewalks were sandblasted with silhouettes of leaves, tree branches, and basketweave patterns.

The nomenclature has changed, too. “Pedestrian mall” is dated, freighted with negative connotations, and overly limited. “Shared streets” doesn’t privilege one form of transportation over another except by implication: When have cars and their drivers ever shared?

In addition, avoiding the word “mall” offers more flexibility, opening the possibility for a pedestrian-first space that isn’t constrained by consumerism. A shared street can be a play street, as recently proposed by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, or the “home zones” proposed for some residential neighborhoods in Seattle, where it is cheaper to limit a grid of streets to local traffic, and slow everyone down, than to install sidewalks and paint bike lanes. In Long Island City, the Street Seats program just turned a de facto employee parking lot into a pedestrian plaza, inspired by the unusual glacial rock formation popping out of the asphalt.

Imagine such a zone centered around a school, or overlaid, as it could be in my Brooklyn neighborhood, to encompass a park, an elementary school, two ice cream shops, and a public library.

Fulton Mall is also getting a 21st-century makeover and, incrementally, an expansion. “Most people get here by mass transit or walk or bike,” says Myer. “Car use is to get to the bridges or to get to the highways—that’s why we have always supported congestion pricing.”

The long-promised Willoughby Square Park should go into construction in 2020, without its originally planned underground parking garage. On a recent morning, kids were playing on the fake grass of a temporary plaza on the site. DOT recently turned several blocks of Willoughby Street into shared streets, with 5-mph traffic, cafe seating, and planters, to accommodate the area’s lunchtime crowds. That’s the first time the agency has installed a shared street outside Manhattan.

In February, Bjarke Ingels Group and WXY were hired by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership to create a new public realm plan for downtown, which includes Fulton Mall, in response to the tremendous residential growth in the area since the 2004 rezoning. Wider sidewalks and better transit accessibility are on the table, as is trying to create a sense of cohesion in a neighborhood in which three different street grids clash and confound cars. (My first plea would be for more trees… or maybe some of Pomeroy’s red shade structures wrapping the blocks.)

“I’ve been amazed how quickly the public responds to new open space in downtown Brooklyn,” Myer says. “Not one has been like, ‘Oh, maybe we didn’t need that.’”


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