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

11 thoughts on “Make Boulevards Great Again

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell


    One thing I will say for grass is that it reduces road debris like salt, broken glass, nuts & bolts, and other stuff. Perhaps more important for bikeways or MUPs along higher speed roads. This is very noticeable on paths like those in Shoreview or along Ramsey Cty Hiway 96 that are sometimes directly next to the curb and sometimes have a grassy area. Even just a 1′ bit of grass has a very noticeable affect on reducing debris.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m very surprised about your comments about the Walgreens frontage on Ford Pkwy — in fact, at first, I nearly thought the “good” and “bad” example pictures were flipped.

    I think there’s something about proportion of street life to traffic. When you have a huge volume of pedestrians, or a very low volume of traffic, it makes sense for the sidewalk to be very “open” to the street. But Ford Pkwy is a busy, multi-lane county road — and although Highland Park is a largely walkable place, it is vastly out of proportion with the arterial sort of road. So in that case, I think a high degree of separation enhances the pedestrian environment. A similar situation and design exists on the 7600 block of Lyndale in Richfield. Compare that to the 6300 block, which has a very open/exposed sidewalk. Even with higher traffic volumes to the south, I think that block is so much more dignified to walk on.

    Tree health is also a major factor for improving walkability, so I think providing space for trees to spread out makes a big difference. I agree the Walgreens one needs to be pruned on the lower branches, but the arrangement and space actually seem very good to me.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I agree totally about your tree comment. I believe new trees are planted at a spacing that reflects a mature canopy, and that is smart. But appropriate pruning to allow 6 foot tall people to walk unimpeded on a sidewalk seems like a reasonable standard. Allowing branches to overhang and impede pedestrians adds to the risk that people will accidentally or purposely harm them – young trees are vulnerable enough.

    2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I agree that there proportion should be considered, but we may differ on proposed solutions.

      I checked my post on 7600 Lyndale – Kensington Park - I agree with you that sidewalk is good to walk on. I encourage readers to look at the last photo in that post. That pedestrian condition is nicer because the sidewalk is considerably wider, the trees (at least now) don’t block the pedestrian path, and the frontage is friendlier and more consistent (unfortunately walking Lyndale a block north or south is far less friendly) than Ford Parkway. To your point, Sean, I actually think this boulevard is appropriate to provide a buffer that is necessary due to the curb lane being used for traffic. Context does matter.

      I will point out that Ford Parkway immediately to the east (closer to Cleveland) has better boulevard conditions. I really think this section of sidewalk is too narrow, which is my biggest complaint. Human nature dictates that people don’t just walk down the sidewalk in a straight line – that boulevard space should allow for overflow pedestrian movement.

      The wider and more fast moving the roadway, the wider the sidewalk (and buffer, if required) should be. Large French and Spanish boulevards bear this out. Ford Parkway (and most county roads, for that matter) are spatially out of balance.

  3. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Agree that the Paris example is the best. One problem I have with trees and pavers in the boulevard is the snow removal process. I would guess that a sidewalk like the Parisian example, where boulevard and sidewalk are indistinguishable, would have a more complete snow removal. Here, many of our already narrow sidewalks are made narrower with large snow barriers because the tree/shrub/paver boulevard is not shoveled. This would also affect passengers exiting cars and back doors of buses. It would be interesting to look at some of these examples again in the winter.

  4. GlowBoy

    Another problem with Ford Parkway is that its sidewalk carries a lot of bike traffic. Ford is an important bike connection (being an extension of the 46th/Ford Bridge, being a major commercial destination in itself, and very near the river parkway) but the street itself is essentially an unsafe place to ride.

    I frequently ride to (or through) the Highland area, and usually take the sidewalk on Ford. I slow down and give pedestrians plenty of room, and don’t generally experience any conflicts there. But what’s going to happen when the Ford site gets developed, making these even more of an important destination than it is today? Pedestrian, bike and car traffic will ALL increase (hopefully the former two more than the latter). Of course I’d like to see Ford calmed to one lane each way with bike lanes, but some challenging choices will have to be made.

    Glad for the coming bike lane on Cleveland, though!

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’ve ridden up the hill on Ford Parkway without too much trouble, because on the weekend at least, there’s more road surface than needed so any passing cars can get by pretty easily in the left lane. A bike lane would be great, but I’m not holding my breath.

      But the Cleveland lane is there now. I’ve ridden it 3-4 times already.

Comments are closed.