This week’s Streets.mn love-fest has produced good content. Curiously, none of its content involves any of us writers proclaiming love for the streets in our Twin Cities or suburbs. We talk about trails and parks, which Minnesota does very well. Brendon Slotterback loves trees that line our streets and Andrew Owen loves accessibility that comes from how our streets are used, but what about the streets themselves? Given the name of this website, this is profoundly disturbing, although I suppose one of the reasons we exist is to seek answers to why our streets are so lacking.
Still, it begs the question what Twin Cities street do we love? Grand Avenue? Nicollet Mall for a couple blocks? Hennepin Avenue between Lake and 31st Street? Grand Way at Excelsior and Grand? The pickings are painfully slim for an urbanized area with 3 million people.
As I sit here and think about my favorite streets none in the Twin Cities rises to the top. State Street in Madison, Regent Street as it approaches Piccadilly Circus in London, Espanola Way in Miami Beach, Haight Street in San Francisco, some of the multiway boulevards I’ve seen in Europe, the list goes on, but they are far from home.
I use the image of Churchill-laan in Amsterdam because this is an easy street to love. I’ve used this before and I don’t care – this street embodies everything that can be right about streets, including (and very importantly) the land uses that surround it.
Maybe a couple stories about how to properly frame this situation.
The reason I’m in this industry derives from my last night of freshman year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, when some friends and I emerged from a wonderful dinner on to State Street at dusk. The street was positively humming on that perfect May evening, with people heading from finals, campus and shopping to coffee shops, dinner and the bars. People were riding bikes, skateboards, walking, and lingering in the fresh spring air. The sun had just set in the west and the Wisconsin State Capitol framed the view up the street to the east. It was a perfect street moment and something I’ve been driven to re-live or help create since.
The other story did take place in Minneapolis. A few years ago I took a professional course in July at St. Thomas downtown taught by two guys from New York. On Friday after class was complete, I was out for drinks with friends and ran in to these two guys sitting enjoying a drink on Peavey Plaza, with all the buzz of Sommerfest and a typical summer Friday evening around us. As first-time visitors to Minneapolis, they explained that all week they had been downtown seeking “the urban scene” and only now in that moment did they find it. Being from New York, they feared they were in a cowtown but were suitably impressed by Nicollet Mall at 11th Street. I looked around and understood what they meant; there is a well-appointed street with bus and bicycle traffic, a public plaza (how Peavey Plaza turns out in a couple years is another matter), the lovely Brit’s Pub building, a YWCA and WCCO (not much to look at but generators of activity and interest, respectively), Westminster Church, residential, office and hotel towers, all of which converge to make the south end of Nicollet Mall a really nice stretch of street, arguably (and you will argue with me I’m sure) the nicest in the Twin Cities.
Why don’t we have more streets like this? Not all streets can be Nicollet Mall at 11th, much less Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, but we can make streets not just adequate like 29th Avenue but more like Churchill-laan. That involves a myriad of solutions, not the least of which includes different road standards that don’t rely on continued automobile traffic growth projections. It also requires street trees, places for people to sit and linger, and appropriate buildings facing those streets with more people doors and less doors for vehicles. Yes, a tram in a grass median is a bonus but not a requirement. Perhaps what we need to revisit the very definition of the word “street” and what it means to us.
And so we have seen by this week’s Streets.mn posts that there is much to love about the Twin Cities, but our streets are sadly not among them. They can be, though, but it will take readers of this site and many more to mobilize and demand better streets from our planners, public works officials, transportation engineers and elected officials.
Here are some of my favorite streets, in order: Denman Street in Vancouver, Canada; historic street near a square, Savannah, Georgia; State Street in Madison, Wisconsin; I wish I could remember where, Utrecht, Netherlands