The Pedestrian Way: Streets for people in China and the United States

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NanjingLu, Shanghai
photo: me

Perhaps you have been following along this summer and noted our reproaches to the traffic movements and pedestrian environments in Chinese cities. If not, do not fret, I can summarize in two words and a conjunction: stressful and dangerous. But not all streets are the lamentable multi-lane arterials-cum-speedways, some streets function on the human scale where pedestrians dominate. Still other roads have been reclaimed from automobile traffic and function as pedestrian streets. While the history of pedestrian commercial streets in the United States has been an urban planning roller coaster ride, the Chinese analogues generally bristle with life and function as important public spaces. This post will introduce three forms of Chinese pedestrian commercial streets: the upscale walking mall or village, the historic renovation walking mall, and the narrow commercial alleyway. How do these pedestrian streets compare to the United States, and where have all the American pedestrian malls gone?…

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Qianmen Street, Beijing, China
photo: me

Pedestrian Streets in China

In a general sense, there are three major types of pedestrian streets in China: 1) the high-end outdoor shopping mall with streets closed to traffic, 2) the shopping street with a veneer of historic preservation, and 3) the narrow street that has been pedestrianized either by bollards or by throngs of shoppers. In the examples I have seen, these streets function well both as commercial districts and as public space.

1. The high-end modern pedestrian shopping mall

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One of the few times in China that auto drivers are outmassed. Nanjing Rd., Shanghai, China
photo: me

What I call “Glitzy Streets,” these areas feature plenty of luxury goods, high-end retail, and a glut of adjacent malls. These streets cater to the nouveau riche, tourists, and those wishing to soak in the energy of the New China. This type of Chinese pedestrian street is best exemplified by Shanghai’s Nanjing Rd., “one of the world’s busiest shopping streets,” and Beijing’s Wayfujing St. “…the sister street of Champs Elysees in France.” Glitzy Streets usually feature wide roads that have been completely closed to private automobiles. Above the stores and malls are often international hotels, offices, and banks. In the Shanghai and Beijing examples there are few restaurants, bars, or cafes along the main roads but both areas feature lots of food and entertainment just off the main street. Both examples use some of the wide right-of-way for street furniture, performance stages, water features, and, my favorite, mist machines. At night these streets come alive with families walking, street vendors, and children eating an astonishing amount of ice cream.

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Wayfujing St. in the mid-day heat. Top lefthand photo is of a more vibrant side street affectionately called “snack street,” perfect place to pick up some fried scorpion!
photos: me

2. The high-end renovation

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Qianmen St. before and after restoration
photos: me

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Qianmen St. before and after restoration
photos: me

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Qianmen St. before and after restoration
photos: me

A popular form of pedestrian street involves a modicum of historic preservation. Renovating older buildings, closing streets to automobile traffic, and developing high-end retail without the hotels and offices creates a better pedestrian environment and more relaxed public space. In my opinion. Two examples of high-end historic renovations are Qianmen St. in Beijing and the Xintiandi shopping area in Shanghai.

Qianmen: The above photos are of Qianmen St. in Beijing. Located just south of Tianmen Square, this street was the historic road leading to the Forbidden City from the south. Once a bustling commercial corridor with a main streetcar line running along the middle, during the 1970s through the 1990s much of the commercial tenants vacated the street. In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, the City of Beijing completely renovated the street and adjacent hutongs, alleyway residential areas, to the east. A tourist trolley was built and the street was closed to automobile traffic. Soon the space was filled with many high-end retailers, a few restaurants, and the requisite Starbucks and McDonald anchors. It all feels a bit like The Grove in Los Angeles, complete with novelty streetcar! While the street remains very active, toward the southern end and to the east most shopfronts are empty, waiting for tenants that may never come.

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Empty development in the former hutongs along Qianmen St. While the street maintains a historic facade, the redevelopment required destroying many historic neighborhoods and relocating residents. These storefronts now stand vacant.
photos: me

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Beijing has a novelty streetcar, just like Portland! Ding, ding…
photo: me

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Peaking down an alley to the west off Qianmen St. you can see that things get more exciting.
photo: me

Xintiandi: I wonder what the delegates to First Congress of the Communist Party of China would think if they returned to the location of their foundational meetings. Today, the historic brick edifices of the Xintiandi district have been turned into a car-free pedestrian boulevard that features the finest European and American brands. Most of the buildings were demolished and rebuilt with historic facades, but a number of the original buildings remain.

Xintiandi shopping street, Shanghai, China
photo: cooltownstudio.com

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Cafes in Xintiandi, Shanghai, China
photo: wikitravel.org

The success of Xintiandi and Nanjing Rd. as pedestrian areas has caught the attention of developers in Shanghai, currently an area known as Rockbund is being developed along the northern reach of The Bund in Shanghai. The developers purchased 12 historic buildings and are currently renovating the buildings in preparation of high-end retail. Additionally, there will be a new art museum built along the street.

One of the Rockbund buildings undergoing restoration.
photo: Christine Busacca

From what I saw walking down the street, the physical integrity of the original buildings will be preserved through the renovation. How many Chanel stores one city can support will be tested. These are lovely old stone and brick buildings and with the proper retrofits they may serve duty for another 100+ years.

Some of the historic edifices currently being redeveloped as part of the Rockbund project.
image: skyscraper.org

3. The default pedestrian street…

Nanluoguxiang, South Gong and Drum Alley, in Beijing.
photo: me

…happens to be the most successful! Perhaps the most compelling pedestrian streets I have found in China are the converted hutongs or longtongs, alleyways that weave their way through much of Beijing’s historic center and many parts of Shanghai. These streets function at a human scale, are economically vibrant, and offer historic preservation. My favorite example of this is Nanluoguxiang in Beijing. Found near the Drum Tower just north of Beihai park and near the fluorescent discos of Houhai, Nanluoguxiang (or NLGX as the expats call it) is a narrow alley that has attracted many shops, bars, restaurants, snack windows, and a few hotels. The area is technically open to all traffic, but only a few black Audi A6s and taxis dare pass through the masses of people.

No cars allowed in some hutongs! (they sneak in anyway…)
photo: me

At most hours of the day the 800m long street is filled with people, effectively closing it to auto traffic. The adjacent hutongs are slowly developing new shops, as are areas to the north of NLGX. The area offers a mix of quiet hutong life mixed with a vibrant commercial and recreational feel. The hutongs serve as great public space, card tables and chairs are brought into the street, kids are riding bikes and playing games.

Darshilan near Qianmen St., Beijing
photo: me

Sometimes presence of people is not enough to keep intrepid drivers off pedestrian streets. Some of these streets, like Darshilan found to the west of Qianmen St., are closed to automobile traffic by bollards and other forms of traffic diversion. Darshilan is a historic shopping area that features silk shops and a variety of mid-range and souvenir shops. The narrow street is packed with tourists and local shoppers and there is a great deal of energy in the streets. People use it is a public space, relaxing, playing cards, and talking. While the bollards keep automobiles out, the road is too narrow for all modes to share and the introduction of cars would either change the character of the street or the mass of pedestrians at most hours would keep drivers away.

Pedestrian Streets in the United States

A Times Square for people
photo: inhabitat.com

As the central business districts of many American cities were gutted by suburbanization, many cities made last ditch efforts to save downtown commercial districts through the implementation of pedestrian streets. In 1959, Kalamazoo, Michigan became the first US city to plan and build a pedestrian “mall.” Based on initial success, hundreds of similar projects were built around the country. By the mid-80s most were deemed failures and returned to automobile traffic. There are many factors that led to the dissolution of these places including the rise of suburban mega-malls, a decades long lull in American physical activity, and declining safety in downtown areas.

In the past twenty years some trends have changed: younger and older Americans are returning to cities, malls are waning in popularity, safety in most American cities is the highest post-World War II, and a cultural shift is afoot that is de-emphasizing the role of automobility. Also, there is renewed interest in creating pedestrian streets that serve as great public spaces.

Blue tint denotes pedestrian area. Times Square, NYC
image: Urban Times

Perhaps the most successful recent example is Times Square in New York. In 2009, the New York City temporarily closed part of Broadway to automobile traffic and installed public seating and other amenities as a trial. Without fully closely the area to automobiles, NYC was able to greatly improve the safety and attractiveness of Times Square. Before the trial, opinions were mixed with some believing the changes would snarl traffic and cause the ruin of Times Square. The critics were wrong, the changes proved successful and retail in the area improved with the changes. The closure has since been made permanent. In larger cities with high density this type of closure or partial closure may become increasingly popular.

Woonerf-like multi-modal street in Asheville, NC.
photo: streetswiki.wikispaces.com

Should we be closing streets to cars in Portland, Ore.? Not so easy… For the closure to be successful there needs to be a great density of people in the area and frequenting the retail establishments. Small, narrow streets like the portion of SW Ankeny that was recently closed and areas throughout the Pearl District may be ideal places for partial or full automobile traffic closures. The Pearl District would be an excellent opportunity to create car-lite areas that better prioritize pedestrians in a commercial area. On streets like Hawthorne Blvd. and Alberta St. a full closure closure, 24 hours a day, may not be possible. Many residential streets in Portland would be ideal for woonerfs, or living streets, where pedestrians and bicyclists have legal and design priority.

For larger commercial streets, a better solution would be to put these streets on road diets, removing and narrowing traffic lanes, lowering speed limits to below 20 mph, widening sidewalks, and creating a family-friendly pedestrianized environment. Dedicated busways could be added to expedite transit movements through these areas. Perhaps these streets could experiment with car-free Sundays. Similar to a woonerf, these streets would prioritize the safety and comfort of people over the convenience and speed of automobiles. If most commercial areas in Portland were retrofitted in this way we would have a much more livable, pleasant place to call home.

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