Pushing the Idea of Pedestrian Malls

  • Last spring, the New York city government decided to close parts of Times Square to traffic, creating pedestrian-only plazas. (Photo courtesy of Sean Marshall)

Since the 1960s or ‘70s, people have flocked to suburban malls to shop and hang out. A lot of cities tried to get people back downtown by keeping cars out—they shut down streets and created pedestrian malls. Nora Flaherty reports the downtown pedestrian malls seldom worked, but some planners think it’s worth a try again.

Transcript

Since the 1960s or ‘70s, people have flocked to suburban malls to shop and hang out. A lot of cities tried to get people back downtown by keeping cars out—they shut down streets and created pedestrian malls. Nora Flaherty reports the downtown pedestrian malls seldom worked, but some planners think it’s worth a try again.

If you go to New York City’s Times Square, you’ll encounter a lot of lights, a lot of noise, throngs of tourists and office workers, and guys hawking theatre tickets…

But these days, you won’t encounter a tangle of cars, cabs, and busses. That’s because last spring, the city government decided to close parts of Times Square to traffic and create pedestrian-only plazas.

Rochelle Paterson works for the city. She says that the extra breathing space suits her just fine.

“I always thought 42nd street was so congested—and sometimes you need a place to sit and just relax.”

Now, New York is densely populated and people are used to walking to get around. It’s busy here. But pedestrian malls in other cities have often attempted to bring crowds into areas that cities wish would be busier.

A few decades ago, cities all over the country were feeling the pain as indoor malls opened in the suburbs….and lots of those cities hoped pedestrian malls would make downtowns centers of activity again.

Poughkeepsie, New York was one; and its mall did end up becoming a center of activity…

Just not the kind they were hoping for. The city shut down traffic. Built a nice pedestrian walkway. But then things went wrong. The city repealed laws against public drunkenness and loitering. A county social services office moved into the mall.

And then came drugs, gangs, and prostitution.

Ron Knapp is the police chief in Poughkeepsie; He was just starting his career in 1974 when the pedestrian mall was first built:

“So you kind of had a tough element out there that you had to deal with. And as those laws loosened up it hurt the mall, and as the businesses further went out, and once you’re in that downhill cycle it’s hard to stop.”

In 1981 Poughkeepsie decided to reopen the area to traffic as part of an effort to—again—revitalize downtown. Most of the 200-or-so American cities that tried out pedestrian malls were not successful. Reid Ewing is a professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, and he works with the American Planning Association:

“Ped traffic had been light before and businesses not doing that well with people fleeing to the suburbs in the 60s or 70s. And so the ped malls actually exacerbated the problem.”

People thought parking was a hassle. The downtown pedestrian malls were just not convenient.

There have been success stories, though—like Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, and Church Street, in Burlington, Vermont. And those successes tended to have a few things in common:

They were not in depressed downtowns; they were in areas where there tended to be a lot of students and tourists, and where people felt safe; and cities needed to provide a lot of activities—things like farmers markets—to bring people in.

In other words, a pedestrian mall could make an already-pretty-nice area, nicer…but it couldn’t pull an area out of the kind of a downhill slide.

….But having learned some tough lessons, a lot of urban planners like Reid Ewing are saying it’s time to try again.

“It’s just consistent with so many things happening today…dealing with climate change, the US obesity epidemic. Getting people out walking who would otherwise get in their cars. It’s a small thing but it’s an important part of this puzzle.”

Planners concede pedestrian malls cannot work just anywhere. But they can work…to make some areas more vibrant, and more environmentally friendly.

For The Environment Report, I’m Nora Flaherty.

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A Good Guide for Shopping

  • The Good Guide website's turkey rating page. (Image by Jessi Ziegler)

There’s a new way for consumers to find
out more about the products they buy.
Samara Freemark has the story
of a new online guide that lets you look
up how good products are for you and for
the environment:

Transcript

There’s a new way for consumers to find
out more about the products they buy.
Samara Freemark has the story
of a new online guide that lets you look
up how good products are for you and for
the environment:

The website is called the Good Guide, and it lets consumers get a pretty in-depth look at more than 60,000 foods and household products. The site ranks products by their impacts on health, the environment, and society.

The Good Guide is the brainchild of Dara O’Rourke. He’s a professor of environmental policy at the University of California at Berkley. O’Rourke says consumers don’t have easy access to the information they need to make smart buying decisions.

“What we’re trying to do is bring the best available science, put it in an easy accessible and free format, then get it to people whenever and wherever they make a decision about a product or a company.”

That’s where the Good Guide iphone application comes in. Shoppers can scan barcodes at the store to get instant product information.

That application, and the site, can be found at goodguide.com

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

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Interview: The Price of Cheap Goods

  • Ellen Ruppel Shell writes that we spend about 80% more in a discount environment. (Source: Urban at Wikimedia Commons)

In this recession, we are looking at money
differently. A bargain – getting things cheap –
has been the all-consuming goal. Ellen Ruppel Shell has written a new book entitled
‘Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.’ The
Environment Report’s Lester Graham talked with
her:

Transcript

[Please note: the following transcript is for a shorter version of the interview. If you would like a complete transcript, please contact us.]

In this recession, we are looking at money
differently. A bargain – getting things cheap –
has been the all-consuming goal. Ellen Ruppel Shell has written a new book entitled
‘Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.’ The
Environment Report’s Lester Graham talked with
her:

Lester Graham: Your book tells the story of how we came to value cheap, but, you know, my dad used to say, ‘cheap things aren’t good and good things aren’t cheap.’

Ellen Ruppel Shell: I think that retailers and multinationals have gone really far to make us not think like that. Your father insisted on value. You know, there’s an old Russian saying, ‘I’m too poor to be cheap.’ You know, this is something that people used to take for granted – we used to know that we got what we paid for. Now, how did this common wisdom get forgotten?

Graham: Most of the products we get, we throw away – because they are so cheap.
We don’t have to worry about the cost of repairing them, because we can simply replace them with something brand-new.

Shell: Absolutely, and, of course, that disposability has been marketed to us as a big advantage. And I’ve also gotten that comment from folks, ‘Well, you know, who cares? I’ll just throw it away. I don’t want something that lasts a long time. I want something new all the time.’ Our relationship with objects has really become distorted – I mean, the very idea that you would buy shoes knowing, almost as you leave the store, that they’re not going to last. And, studies show, that if you believe that, you don’t take care of them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You assume they’re going to fall apart.

Graham: Your book makes it sound as though we’re in a spiral, downward, in pursuit of cheap goods. Why do you make that argument?

Shell: Well, I think it’s a spiral we might, now, have the opportunity to pull ourselves out of. But, yes, I do think it’s a spiral – the idea that prices have to go lower and lower. And the reason for this, of course, is that since the 1970s, incomes in the United States have been essentially flat, controlling for inflation. And even going down somewhat, for most Americans. At the same time, three-quarters of our income goes to pay for fixed costs – those things we can’t live without – healthcare, education. So, what have these low priced goods done for us? Well, I argue, not a lot. It’s made tee-shirts, and shorts, and other things, maybe cheaper than ever before, but we have sacrificed – in terms of our wages, our job security, and our stability as an economy – as a consequence of these increasingly low prices, this incredible – what we used to call ‘predatory’ – pricing.

Graham: Many of us feel we can only afford ‘cheap.’ What are you suggesting we do?

Shell: My goal in writing this book was to get consumers to re-think why they shop in the first place. We spend about 80% more in a discount environment. And, then, we’re getting what we think are these amazing deals. And this triggers in our brain this kind of game-playing behavior – we want to make all these, you know, we want to win. Do we go to buy things that are going enhance our life and add value to our life? Or, is it a game-playing exercise? And I think most of us would say, rationally, well you know, look, ‘I go to purchase things that are going to enhance my life.’ And, if that’s the case, I think that you will actually spend less money, you will buy fewer things, and you’ll think harder about why you’re buying those things, and you’ll get precisely what you want at the price that’s going to work for you.

Graham: Ellen Ruppel Shell is the author of the book ‘Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.’ Thanks very much for your time.

Shell: Thank you. It’s been fun.

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“Lifestyle Centers” Smarter Shopping?

  • Shoppers take a coffee break at Eastwood Towne Center near Lansing, Michigan. The outdoor shopping mall is one of a growing number of "lifestyle centers" in the United States. (Photo by Erin Toner)

For decades now, people have done most of their shopping at sprawling, suburban malls that offer plenty of free parking and shelter from the weather. But now, people are heading back outside to shop, to places reminiscent of quaint downtowns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

For decades now, people have done most of their shopping at sprawling, suburban malls that offer
plenty of free parking and shelter from the weather. But now, people are heading back outside to
shop, to places reminiscent of quaint downtowns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin
Toner reports:


It’s a sunny day in March. But, as anyone who lives in the Midwest knows, a sunny day this early
in the Spring is rarely warm day. Today’s temperature’s in the 30s. But that’s apparently no reason to
stay indoors, when there’s shopping to be done.


The stores just opened at Eastwood Towne Center on the outskirts of Lansing, Michigan and the parking lot is
slowing filling up. Shiny minivans unload mothers, and babies and old ladies. They disappear into
Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor Loft and the Yankee Candle Company. They march from one store to
another to the sounds of soft-rock drifting out of speakers perched on lamp posts outside.


Eastwood Towne Center is one of a growing number of so-called “lifestyle centers.” There are
several in the Great Lakes Region – in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Lifestyle centers
are outdoor malls built to look like old-time downtowns. They have pseudo Main streets, that
weave through upscale stores with brick or stone-facades. Shoppers or their bored husbands can
take a rest on wrought-iron benches in neatly-manicured courtyards, or in cozy chairs at Starbucks.


Lifestyle centers also usually have popular chain restaurants and movie theaters.


Beverly Baten shops and works at Eastwood Towne Center. She says people are coming to
Eastwood to do what they used to do in city centers.


“They’re coming here to socialize. They’re coming to have lunch, to maybe see a movie, and
shopping is always a part of that experience because right here, at Eastwood Towne Center, we
have the stores that people want. And that’s so important. Whoever built this mall, did their
homework.”


Cincinnati-based Developer Jeffrey R. Anderson built Eastwood Towne Center. The company also
has lifestyle centers in Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois. And it’s opening four more in the next four
years.


The company’s Mark Fallon says shopping malls took most of the retail out of real downtowns a
long time ago. But he says now, people are looking at getting to the mall as a hassle. Fallon says
lifestyle centers offer the best of both worlds. He says they re-create the feeling of friendly
downtowns, and have the free parking and the good stores that malls offer.


“It’s really the closest thing to what was free-standing shops, that ended up next door to each other,
or in a neighborhood and you’re kind of recreating that feel, and getting back to a more pleasant
and convenient shopping environment that really, the mega-mall or the regional shopping mall that
you’re used to, the enclosed behemoth, that’s usually outside of town that you have to drive to
doesn’t provide these days.”


But that convenience sometimes comes at a cost. The developer covered old farm fields and a
small wetland to build the new shopping center. But it’s just across the street from older city
neighborhoods and infrastructure. Some criticize places like Eastwood for adding to urban sprawl.
But planning experts say many lifestyle centers actually fit into so-called “smart growth.”


Marya Morris is with the American Planning Association in Chicago. She says many developers
are locating lifestyle centers close to existing suburban development – and typically not in big
fields outside of town. Morris says incorporating new development into communities is what
“smart growth” is all about.


“It’s generally building in areas, in already-developed areas through redevelopment or
intensification of development, particularly in the suburbs right now. Many suburbs grew up
without any specific center or town square or downtown. And lifestyle centers, in many
communities, have helped create such a downtown, along with other things like new city halls, or
libraries, or new public greens.”


Developers say lifestyle centers are more attractive to retailers than real downtowns because they
can build exactly the store they want from the ground up. In older cities, retailers would have to
pay to retro-fit existing storefronts. And in real downtowns, there’s usually limited parking that
customers have to pay for. Lifestyle centers also often let retailers pack up and leave — no strings
attached — if business starts to slide.


But it seems pretty hard to imagine that a business would fail at Eastwood Towne Center, as the parade
of cars and shoppers grows this morning.

There are 20 new lifestyle centers set to open around the country over the next two years.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

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