The Uncertain Legacy of America's Pedestrian Malls

A look at some of America's most (and least) successful designs.

Image
Flickr/rahimageworks

American urban history is dotted with failed (and occasionally infamous) pedestrian malls. But there are success stories too, which offer lessons in designing walkable, mixed-use districts.

The world's first planned pedestrian mall was built in 1953 in Rotterdam. Six years later, Kalamazoo, Michigan, became the first American city adopt the concept. Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen (most famous for his American shopping malls) envisioned a project that would resemble Vienna's Ringstrasse. Instead, a much scaled-down concept was built in 1959.

The Kalamazoo Mall did well at first, with a fourth block added in the 1970s. But by the 1990s, it had become a sore spot for many residents. The "mall" had less parking, less weather protection, and more vagrants that the traditional shopping center. When the city decided to reopen part of the street in 1998, citizens excitedly competed, via raffle, to drive the first car down the mall.

Others have been more successful. Some of the  best pedestrian malls in America are located in college towns like Charlottesville, Ithaca, Iowa City, and Madison. 

Larger cities, however, have have seen particularly mixed results. Chicago turned 9 blocks of State Street into a pedestrian mall in 1979 only to see a drop in commercial activity and safety (traffic was restored in 1996). Buffalo's has been long regarded as a failure, though the redevelopment process has only just begun. Sacramento will also be bringing back auto traffic to its K Street Mall. Youngstown's lackluster former mall was replaced by a much more exciting downtown space.

But Miami's Lincoln Road Mall is an unquestioned cultural hub for locals and tourists, dotted with restaurants, cafes, and memorable architecture. In fact, it has become such an integral part of Miami's identity that last year it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In Manhattan, a 2009 experiment, temporarily turning a section of Times Square into a pedestrian zone, was so popular that a more permanent design by Snøhetta is now in store.

Below, some of America's remaining pedestrian malls:

Top image of State Street in Madison, Wisconsin courtesy Flickr user ra_hurd.

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