There was a discussion happening on Twitter last week that got me thinking about the balance between order and chaos on city sidewalks and how challenging it is to find that perfect spot between those two extremes that creates a great pedestrian environment.
On the one side you need order to make sidewalks safe, they need to be as uniform as possible; free of obstructions that may cause you to trip; and wide enough that a large volume of people can move through a given space in an efficient manner. This is completely the transportation view on the pedestrian environment; that people are like cars moving along a freeway and that freeway needs to be fast, efficient and with as few deviations from the norm as possible. Unfortunately, going to far down the order path can lead to a pretty boring and sterile pedestrian environment.
In the other direction, a pedestrian space ‘free for all’ with no common elements; obstacles in your way; people moving in different directions in a constrained space, is confusing and very dangerous. I can think of a lot of places that I have visited around the world where there is no uniform idea of a sidewalk and so it changes in front of almost every building. In some of these same places, there is not the civic oversight of the maintenance of the sidewalks so there may be significant holes or other dangerous elements that need to be watched out for. There can also be pedestrian spaces where there is almost an unrestrained capitalism. What this means is that shops have wares spilling out onto the sidewalk, in the same space there are hawkers standing around also trying to sell you things. Within a confined market space this can be an invigorating experience, but out in the street and prolific enough, it can become tiring and confusing.
The perfect place for me lies somewhere in-between (though I know that I have a tendency towards the chaos end of the spectrum). To create a great pedestrian environment it cannot be too bland, there should be some element of visual delight from the unexpected, while remaining functional to move. This means that there should be some allowance for stores to have some of their merchandise out, maybe not every store all the time, but some certainly some, some of the time. You most definitely need sidewalk seating, both for cafes and city benches. There needs to be lots of spots where you can stop in the midst of the city and watch the rest of the people move past.
To balance the chaos elements, however, you need sufficiently wide sidewalks that there can be a bench, cafe seating or merchandise on the sidewalk and people can still easily maneuver around them. There has to be consideration given to those with accessibility concerns. Certainly for those with accessibility needs and for the average pedestrian, many of the sidewalks in downtown Victoria are much too narrow. An interesting example of this is the 700 block of Yates Street. Between Broad and Douglas there is a very wide sidewalk (it could be more exciting), but just to the west, where the buildings come closer together, the sidewalk is squeezed between the parked cars and the buildings (If anyone knows why the buildings here don’t align, please let me know!). The simple answer is to remove the on street parking from one side and expand both sidewalks, but the removal of parking is a contentious item right now and one that I actually have a lot of understanding for.
So how do you think about all of these things and actually start implementing them? You need a good plan. Unfortunately our current Pedestrian Master Plan was completed in 2008 and needs a refresh. I would also say that it leans to the order side of the equation too much and does not have the necessary consideration of what makes a space enjoyable to be in. I could write a whole other post on the current plan and maybe will at some point. Hopefully after the bike plan is further built out, the city will move back to the larger commuter segment of pedestrians. One thing that I think can be easily confused is a comparison between the bike and pedestrian modalities. While both biking and walking can be considered active transportation, a bike is more like a car in how it interacts with the city as it is more challenging to pause and experience the city or run into a friend and have a conversation. I know that some have thought that the Active Transportation Plan could cover off both walking and biking, but it can’t.
Some Interesting Case Studies…
Just for some further thought on the chaos end of the spectrum, two places in Victoria to be considered are Chinatown and a small stretch of Kings Road in Oaklands.
First Chinatown. I know that it does lie towards the chaos end of the spectrum, but in my mind, that chaos also helps define that urban centre. You have produce being sold on the street, commercial trucks unloading more produce and wheeling dollies around. There are great benches that attract buskers and allow for a place to sit. There is cafe seating and little alleyways to explore. While you don’t want this to be the norm on every block in the downtown, if the city could take some of these elements and add them to other parts of the city it could create some lively places to visit.
The second is more of an experiment. On Kings Road mostly between Cook Street and Fernwood, there is an active movement to create a “Woonerf”. This is a stretch of roadway that is shared between cars, bikes and pedestrians. The idea is that a shared roadway will make everyone more careful and cars in particular will need to travel at almost a pedestrian pace. Of course, all streets at one time were a form of woonerf and it wasn’t until the advent of cars and broad adoption of them that sidewalks became necessary. Still I am hesitant to say that we should bring back this idea to large parts of the city, I am interested to see if and when it gets implemented in Oaklands. In particular how the space will be unified. As it is right now, it still feels like a car space with no sidewalks.
What are the most important aspects of the pedestrian environment for you? Do you lean more towards order or chaos on your sidewalks?