Every two years, the Department of Architecture Design & Urbanism at Drexel stages an intensive weekend design workshop, referred to as a charrette (a French word meaning wagon, denoting the cart that used to pick up student work at the appointed deadline). This year’s charrette was based on the idea of making some Philadelphia streets pedestrian-only. It attracted 70 students from programs in architecture, interiors, graphic design, product design, and urban strategy. In the space of 48 hours, the students generated both practical and visionary ideas.
The idea of closing streets to vehicles and giving them back to pedestrians is hardly new. Cities all over the world have been doing this for centuries. Whether it is as old as La Rambla in Barcelona or as recent as Lincoln Road in Miami Beach or Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, the freedom of movement and slower pace offered by these urban locales has been well-received by the public and even ultimately good for commerce.
In Philadelphia, we have dabbled with the idea. Back in the 1970s, the city tried to convert Chestnut Street into a Transitway – no cars, buses only. It was a notable failure, though the proximate causes of the failure may have had more to do with Philadelphia’s slumping retail scene and our somewhat typical-of-the-time American devotion to the car.
Well, times have changed. The city successfully closed the 1400 block of Cherry Street and saw it converted to a lively place surrounded by buildings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Our citizens and visitors regularly enjoy one-day street closures and clamor for more. Our colleague, Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, recently suggested that perhaps Ninth Street in the Italian Market is worthy of some form of regularly scheduled closures to traffic.
For our student charrette, we proposed four streets for consideration by our students: North Second Street in Northern Liberties, South 19th Street between Walnut and Chestnut, the 2000 block of Sansom Street, and North 11th Street between Market and Arch. We chose those blocks for purely academic reasons – easy for our student teams to visit in a short period of time, and representative of different types of streets.
Working in teams of eight, the students submitted proposals ranging from elegant street covers and lighting to extensive use of mini-retail kiosks and even some fantastical raised walkways and gardens. In order to achieve even the simplest proposal, there would have to be considerable consultation with residents and business owners, with utilities, and with transportation and planning officials.
But there is something that could be done right now. We can begin to run some experiments by selectively closing some streets for a day or a week and carefully monitoring what happens.
In fact, we do this all the time, by accident. The 1300 block of Sansom Street has been closed for some time due to water main repairs. A friend recently reported to me that she went to an event at a bar/restaurant on that block, after street-work hours, and found the atmosphere invigorating and unusually pleasant, despite the condition of the roadway. When things like this happen, it should embolden us to try it again, perhaps upping the ante, but also providing a reasonable plan for declaring times of day for deliveries, trash removals, and other essential services.
Philadelphia is blessed with a dense grid of streets that should make selective street closures easier to pull off and ultimately easier to manage the side effects that might come with such closures. I don’t know how far we can go with this, but we should absolutely be testing the system to find out. Our ability to create a more walkable city – something that has become a prized asset of urban life – is within our grasp because we started with an infrastructure that was already most of the way there.
There are so many great examples of how to do this, both here and abroad. What I find most intriguing for Philadelphia, however, is not the big, grandiose version in which we close a main street for blocks on end, but the version in which we close one and two blocks at a time, creating small nodes of car-free space. In doing so, we can develop the knowledge of how to do this in any city neighborhood and spread the pleasure of these places more equitably.
Alan Greenberger heads the Department of Architecture, Design & Urbanism at Drexel University.