Five Rules for Vital Streets

Streets are vital when there is the feeling that there is something going on, of being where the action is. Successful places have vitality. By definition, dead places don’t. We don’t want too much vitality everywhere (I don’t want it on my street after 9 pm) and probably can’t support it. But surely we could have more active places then we do now with a better location of activities.

We drive to places we can walk around, rather than walk around our own neighborhood, unless we happen to live in a place with vitality.

A commercial street in Istanbul, Turkey, with lots of people walking on the wide sidewalks and a narrow right-of-way for automobiles.

Why do we want to walk around? Because there are multiple things to do: find food, browse books, hear music, entice the intellect, watch people, stimulate the senses. This concentration of activities only happens because of the crowds around, and the crowds only gather because of the concentration. More begets more.

These are ‘economies of agglomeration’ as the economists might say or perhaps ‘network effects’. But they allow for the spontaneous walk-in business rather than the planned trip.

Many businesses are unlikely to attract spontaneous walk-ins, for instance vacuum cleaner repairs, [I don’t normally walk around with a vacuum cleaner on the hope I will find a repair shop] and thus lose little by not being located in the center of action and save much on rent. There are limits to the value of agglomeration.

Some restaurants are so good, they require a reservation, and thus there is little spill-in traffic. But other businesses, by saving on rent, are foregoing additional business. Moreover, those businesses are denying potential spillover traffic to their would-be neighbors. It is a calculation that proprietors must do for themselves, but there is a coordination function that a good entrepreneur can serve, matching businesses that attract walk-ins with compatible stores, and maybe subsidizing (lowering the rent for) those that generate more spill-over traffic than they attract.

There are three seeds:

  • A concentration of people (customers, though they need not be spending money, that helps)
  • A concentration of stuff (suppliers, who need not be selling)
  • An environment that encourages people to spend time doing stuff (marketplace)

People concentrate for a variety of reasons – to exploit the material resources of the earth, to have safety in numbers, to find a pool of potential mates, or simply because it is at the intersections of routes between two other places. These intersections (nodes in transportation lingo), create opportunities.

In the streetcar era, people might change lines at a node, and those pedestrians would contribute to the street life necessary to support new businesses. In the highway era the scale changed, and nodes are the interchanges of freeways. Businesses, and especially shopping malls, take advantage of these points of high accessibility. But the shopping mall is now clearly the destination, not a side-product of a transfer point in the same way street-car corners were. Some further assertions about human nature:

  • People like pleasant climates – dry, not too hot, not too cold, clean air, not too loud.
  • People want to feel safe – they don’t want a car careening out of control disturbing their sidewalk café meal, they don’t want to think they will get run over crossing the street.
  • People are lazy – they don’t want to walk too far to get where they are going. If they are driving, they want easy convenient parking near their destination. They like to cross the street mid-block and don’t want to have to walk to intersections.
  • People are cheap – they don’t want to pay for that easy convenient parking, they prefer lower to higher prices for the same good.

The last two be summarized by the idea that “People take the path of least resistance”.

Observing cities around the world with an informed, but casual analysis leads me to assert some rules about the environment that lead to vitality or vibrancy.

  1. Buildings on the sidewalk – vibrant areas have buildings that abut sidewalks with not large gaps between the building and the walk. The density of activity is necessarily reduced by space between building and path (and thus other buildings).
  2. Sidewalks on the street – to have vitality, sidewalks must abut the street, or *be* the street in pedestrian only areas. Pedestrian only areas can work, and anyone who says otherwise has other interests at heart. This does not mean that they will work, but given the right environment, people would prefer to shop without having to look out for motorized vehicles.
  3. Streets move slowly – fast streets make pedestrians feel unsafe, and thus reduces the benefits of being on the sidewalk. Ideally streets are moving at pedestrian speed in the pedestrian area. Of course streets leading to the pedestrian area move faster, or people could not get there. One-way streets may not be inherently problematic, but one-way streets are generally that way to move more vehicle traffic faster through the area, which is the opposite goal of moving pedestrians between buildings within the area. On the other hand, one-way streets are easier to cross.
  4. Vehicle space on the street is minimal – wide streets increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach other activities. Narrow streets give access to more stuff in less time. Hence the reason many enclosed shopping malls work better than many shopping streets is the density of stuff is fairly tight.
  5. Opportunities to explore just around the corner – hidden (pleasant) surprises are one of the things that make cities interesting to be in, if I go around this corner what will I discover. The same opportunities do not exist in an enclosed shopping mall, where everything is pre-mapped and tightly controlled, and I know each “block” ends at a parking ramp. Hidden unpleasant surprises however are one of the things that can kill a city, I don’t want to experience dread when I walk down an alley attached to my favorite shopping street.

This set of rules is by no means complete, but rules like these created street life in streetcar era places, and they create vitality in the better shopping malls.

What other rules do you have?

What are the most and least vital shopping areas in Minnesota?

Updated from a Transportationist post: July 12, 2007.

5 thoughts on “Five Rules for Vital Streets

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Thus the importance of sidewalks. William H. Whyte 101 says that people like people. The state fair is my favorite example, though Nicollet Mall can occasionally create the same feeling. (Also, Open Streets events, parades, etc.)

    In general, I think we have turned our cities into vitality deserts. There is a lot of room for bringing this kind of experience back into our everyday lives. Part of that involves a change in tolerance of diversity and noise, an openness to a health amount of chaos. We have a misanthropic streak in Minnesota that too often bites us in the butt.

    (I don’t think you have to worry about your street though, David, unless the Signature turns into a night club.)

  2. Eric Fischer

    I haven’t succeeded yet in figuring out the sure-fire recipe for vitality, but I would like to suggest that the standard for whether it exists is 800+ pedestrian crossings per hour at an intersection.

    Why 800? Because that is enough that there is always someone wanting to cross every leg of the intersection in both directions, so drivers can never turn without slowing to a crawl and waiting for a gap, and there are enough people doing things that it is almost impossible to be aware of everything that is going on, the same effect that theatrical productions try for.

    A few less than 800 might work. 400 really doesn’t.

  3. Doug Mack

    This is going off on a tangent, perhaps (in more ways than one), but it’s something I’ve been pondering of late while stuck in traffic on Hennepin Avenue: Do streets that run diagonally across a standard grid inherently have disproportionately high vitality than your standard streets that follow the established grid? (Like Hennepin here or Broadway in NYC.)

    Obviously, because they form a hypotenuse, they make an easy connection between two points; they wouldn’t have the same appeal in a disordered grid. But if you were building a city from scratch, would it be a smart bet to buy real estate on a diagonal road? And do the weird triangular blocks that result from the grid-slicing provide a net gain by providing opportunities for pocket parks or weirdly-shaped buildings–or is the size and shape a liability rather than an asset?

    1. David

      I’m no expert but my guess is that diagonal streets have more vitality because they were created that way in the first place to connect areas of vitality.

      Hennepin is a great example. It is an old Native American trail connecting the sacred spots of St. Anthony falls and Lake Calhoun. That well-worn path became the city’s main street because it’s where the people were. It’s not full of vitality because it’s diagonal, it’s diagonal because it was full of vitality.

  4. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

    Doug, that’s a great tangent. From a traffic perspective diagonal’s are a mixed blessing. In uncongested situations, they clearly reduce distance (which is good) (and thus attract more vehicle and pedestrian traffic, which is good for business). When congested, they create very complicated intersections (bad for through traffic, but also bad for pedestrians when the traffic lights are managed to optimize cars). Washington DC has lots of diagonals, maybe too many, and has some vital streets, and certainly the State Avenues are among them.

    In either of the cases (congested or not), the additional pedestrian and vehicle traffic on the diagonal is an anchor for more valuable real estate and thus greater intensity of use, and through the positive feedback effects, more traffic.

    New York is in the process of simplifying Broadway by taking roadspace and allocating it to people rather than vehicles. I have proposed doing similar to Hennepin: What if we closed Hennepin?

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