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What of the future of downtown?

Posted On Tuesday, 31 May 2005 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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Many efforts to restore city centres across the US and Europe have failed, with many valuable lessons to learn

Amos MasondoI have not had time yet to study the budget delivered by Executive Mayor Councillor Amos Masondo on Wednesday, 25 May. However, from the brief reports I have read it looks good. It appears to provide the wherewithal to increase the momentum developed over the past five years while addressing some of the city's critical needs. It is certainly great to see the massive (31,5%) increase in the capital budget.

Places and spaces 1 "Places have an impact on our sense of self, our sense of safety, the kind of work we get done, the ways we interact with other people, even our ability to function as citizens in a democracy. In short, the places where we spend time affect the people we are and can become."

The experience of place

Over the next couple of weeks I want to have a look at how we measure up regarding public space - surely a critical ingredient in our quest for world class city status. There are a number of debates taking place at present, ranging from the proposed square within the Gauteng Provincial Government Precinct to the informal trading structures that have been erected recently on many of the city's pavements to transit streets such as Eloff Street and pedestrianised streets such as Hill Street in Randburg.

Let's start with the last two and firstly look at what has happened in relation to such street interventions in cities in North America and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe. Certainly there are clear parallels for us with the USA in the background to the development of pedestrian and semi-pedestrian streets.

In the American city of the late nineteenth century, retail was the magnet that drew people downtown and was the glue that held it together. The most critical part of that magnet and glue was the department store - the downtown department store became the engine for mass merchandising. It did this by capitalising on the increase in urban populations and in personal wealth, bringing these two aspects together to absorb the output of the then new phenomenon of large scale manufacturing.

Department stores

Department stores acted as educators of the rapidly emerging American middle class by providing elaborate displays that showed their clientele how to dress, how to furnish homes, and so forth, while providing choice by clearly indicating price and quality. Department stores made shopping quite magnificent by providing spaces that were palatial in design. Department stores tried to make shopping fun.

They targeted women, treating them as their major customers and focusing on how to make them comfortable. This attracted huge numbers of middle-class women downtown, who spent a substantial amount of time on shopping trips. As more potential buyers thronged the pavements so speciality shops, restaurants and variety stores created shopping thoroughfares around the big department stores.

Local authorities concentrated on the streetscapes so that stores and streets together made downtown a cleaner and safer place for everyone.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the heart of most big cities was the retail district. The attraction of more and more people downtown had an important effect on transportation technology. The horse-cart was succeeded by the electric trolley and then by the subway - all designed to bring the mass market to the downtown retailer.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 changed the US city's domination of the retail market. Returning war veterans were given cheap housing grants that resulted in the number of housing starts accelerating from 300 000 a year before the war to one million in 1946 and two million by 1950.

However, the new home owners wanted single-family homes in areas that were not crowded and so elected to move into the suburbs rather than make their homes in the dense cities. Cars were cheap, petrol even cheaper and the population's dependence on public transport started to wane dramatically.

Moving to the suburbs

Companies began moving to the suburbs, where their executives lived, manufacturing followed and, in turn, retail started to follow. By the early 1960s department stores were closing their doors in downtowns and reopening them in the suburbs. Cities were in decline and considered by many to be obsolete.

The emergence of decentralised shopping malls in the 1950s was to be the final nail in the coffin for many downtowns. They were places planned around the consumer and were more attractive than the bustle and helter-skelter of the cities' main streets.

They also offered one-stop convenience in spacious, weatherproof surroundings. Consumers could shop at their leisure and comfort instead of travelling downtown with all its irritations and delays - and then having to walk through crowded and noisy streets. Shopping centres became sanctuaries for shopping.

The cities fought back. Cities all over the US, in the UK, Europe and Australia, started to develop dedicated pedestrian streets as they believed that the complete separation of pedestrians and vehicular movement created the most attractive environment for people, as well as served the retailers.

Spiro Kostof, The City Assembled, reflects that, "Downtown business leaders and city officials fought the flood of shopping malls with elaborate pedestrian street schemes and the Malling of Main Street began in earnest.

"The earliest examples come from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Miami Beach, and Pomona, California. In these and dozens of other towns, asphalt was replaced by concrete or tile pavements, punctuated by shade trees and planter boxes, fountains, benches and kiosks. It is an artificial and sanitised design vocabulary, launched with much fanfare, but without a coherent long range programme of urban improvement ... by the 1980s the fad had lost its steam."

Failure of pedestrian malls

The fad had lost its steam and so in the 1980s we find the following reports appearing in the media:

"Pedestrian malls twenty years later" - "Some 150 pedestrian malls - including transit malls - have been built in the United States in the last two decades. Most have failed outright, but a few have lived up to their billing as the salvation of downtown retailing.

"Just about as many department stores and first-run movie theatres have closed in towns with malls as without, and just as many wig-stores, fast food places and video game arcades have opened up." (Planning Magazine, December 1982.

An article in the New York Times on 13 December 1987 entitled "Replacing the downtown mall with traffic" noted that "Eugene, Oregon; Independence, Missouri; Jackson, Michigan; and Champaign, Illinois have turned their malls back into streets again and several other cities, including Chicago, Illinois and Decatur, Illinois, are studying major redesigns of their downtown malls."

Laurie M Grossman writing in The Wall Street Journal in June 1987 stated that most of the pedestrian malls, "failed to reverse the decline - and in some cases hastened it", adding that, "city pedestrian malls fail to fulfill the promise of revitalising downtown".

Roberta Grandez Gratz in The Living City states that, "the pedestrian mall was one of the early planning gimmicks offered as quick-fix solution for economically troubled downtowns that does not address fundamental reasons for downtown activity".

Weak retail mix

Although the pedestrian mall concept attracted shoppers, it failed to keep them coming back because its land use and retail mix were weak. Many pedestrian streets also failed largely because their design - especially in the earlier years - ignored the special character of the urban street.
Instead of emphasizing the traditional street's architecture, sense of human scale, spatial enclosure and linear continuity, the design of the pedestrian street often took the elements that characterised the public spaces of suburban shopping centres - berms, informal planting areas, raised planters, fixed seating, fountains and play sculptures - and used them to fill the street space.

Often, the scale of pedestrian space created by closing the street to vehicles presented a problem. Compared with a traditional shopping area, the pedestrian street, when vehicles were excluded, seemed to be out of scale with the volume of pedestrians, leaving it looking empty rather than lively and bustling with activity.

Many pedestrian streets also failed on a more detailed design level because they used paving material, street furniture and planting approaches that impaired the space's flexibility for use for a variety of functions, created a sense of visual clutter and ignored the goals of durability and maintainability.


The application of suburban design concepts to city centre spaces was destined to fail because it did not recognise the essential characteristics that make the urban street an attractive and social space. Most US cities removed their pedestrian malls when public officials and property owners realised the need for accessibility and visibility.
This failure carries two important lessons for designers of the city centre's pedestrian system.

It is dangerous to import imitative solutions unless the basic conditions that contributed to the original success are clearly present in the city centre.

The special characteristics and resources of the city centre can enhance its identity, its sense of place and its competitiveness without such imports.

Next week we'll pick up on some of the emerging international research findings regarding pedestrianisation of streets, and then examine where we stand locally.


Last modified on Saturday, 17 May 2014 15:13

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