Make Boulevards Great Again

With so much attention paid to buildings and streets and how they relate to each other, we must remember the boulevard is a very important piece of public infrastructure, requiring careful consideration and planning. I’ve observed some very good examples of boulevards that are appropriate for their urban context, and others that need some work. Let’s explore.

The first example (shown below) is a boulevard along Cleveland Avenue near Ford Parkway in Saint Paul. Here, the sidewalk width is plentiful for people to pass, including strollers and wheelchairs, while still leaving space for outdoor seating. The parking lane provides shelter from passing fast cars, and the boulevard is a combination of brick pavers, trees, streetlamps, and bike racks. The important piece here is having boulevard pavement, which allows people to cross the street or access the sidewalk from their parked car while not trampling vegetation. This is also nice for people, because if the sidewalk is too crowded (something that occurs in wonderful, popular, pedestrian-friendly urban places), people can walk along the boulevard, as it is effectively extra sidewalk.

Cleveland Avenue - Great Urban Boulevard

Cleveland Avenue – Great Urban Boulevard

My second example is just around the corner on Ford Parkway (below), which is well intended but needs some work. Here, a vegetated area with plants and trees is located between the curb and sidewalk, surrounded by a tasteful knee-high fence. This is a good idea from an aesthetic and environmental perspective, providing greenery and reducing runoff. However, considering the retail frontage facing it, the sidewalk is too narrow and is constricted for everyday people movement other than walking a straight line. The planted area and fence too narrowly determine where a bus can stop as well. Branches on the trees obstruct the walking path and need trimming, a common problem with young trees (and probably deserving of its own post). In all, this boulevard is well-intended but ultimately not as people-friendly as it could be. If there were on-street parking, passengers couldn’t even open their doors without hitting the fence, and a curbside food truck won’t work here, either.

Ford Parkway - Problematic Boulevard

Ford Parkway – Problematic Boulevard

The City of Chicago has taken this boulevard bioswale one step further, with the garden sunk nearly a foot below the sidewalk and a cut through the curb that allows rainwater from the street to enter before flowing into the sewer system. Again, this is a great idea from a green point of view, but it fixes the width of the sidewalk, limiting people movements. Chicago also has in-street examples (see below), which effectively create a bump out, slowing traffic, proving greenery, and reducing runoff, all without impeding the movement of people. Block the cars, not the people. Problem solved!

Chicago Boulevard Bioswale

Chicago Bioswale Bumpout

Another problem can arise when the boulevard is planted with grass. This seems like a nice, green, default solution, but should only be done in very low-density situations, like in front of single-family homes. Grass can too easily be trampled and is often unmowed, even by diligent property managers. In situations like this along Ford Parkway in Saint Paul (see below), pervious pavers or a sidewalk to the curb would be preferable. But please, keep the street trees!

Too Often, Grass Boulevards Look Ratty

Too Often, Grass Boulevards Look Ratty

In downtown Minneapolis at 3rd and Washington Avenues, the boulevard in front of the new Latitude 45 apartments leaves everything to be desired. In fact, it doesn’t exist. Worse, the outdoor seating is too physically removed from the sidewalk itself. This is in every way what not to do. But wait! To be fair, Washington Avenue is being rebuilt, so the jury is still out on this one. Stay tuned to find out if any urbanity can be salvaged.

Help Me, Placemakers, You're My Only Hope!

Help Me, Placemakers, You’re My Only Hope!

Shown below is Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The recent rebuild of Marquette and 2nd Avenues is a good example of boulevard design for people (skyways be damned!). It includes an unobstructed sidewalk (that I wish was wider) and boulevard with pervious pavers and trees. The pavers allow people to easily access the numerous buses per day without trampling vegetation or negotiating fenced off areas. A really nice bonus is the long line of food trucks is also completely accessible. Yes, the some trees need work, but many are thriving, and a good canopy is someday possible.

Marquette Avenue - Boulevard for People

Marquette Avenue – Boulevard for People

My last and favorite example is from Paris. Here, the boulevard is very small, essentially indistinguishable from the sidewalk itself, used for just streetlamps. This leaves plentiful space for people and strollers to pass each other, as well as sidewalk cafes. In this context, it is the people that make the place great. Would trees or other vegetation make this street nicer? Yes, but interestingly they aren’t really missed. And would pervious pavers be welcome? Sure, but I don’t care – it’s Paris, and this public realm that is second to none.

Aaah, Paris!

Aaah, Paris!

The bottom line is, cities need to be built for people first, and that includes great building frontages and streets, but also people-friendly boulevards. There is no one-size-fits-all; context is absolutely important. So yes, introduce some porosity where possible to catch rainwater runoff, and absolutely plant and care properly for street trees, and leave enough space for lighting, benches, bike racks, and newspaper boxes (whatever they are), but think of the movement of people first when planning and designing boulevards.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.