Another Model of Convivial Spaces

buchanan_street_crowds_8827.jpgCrowds stretch down Glasgow, Scotland’s Buchanan Street pedestrian-only zone.

In Glasgow, Scotland a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a lovely feature of many European cities: broad central city streets converted to pedestrian only. In Glasgow it’s on Sauchiehall Street and makes a grand turn onto Buchanan, covering over 20 city blocks. Mostly lined with stores and offices, the landscape created can be "read" as an extended shopping mall, but outdoors, with storefronts opening onto a real street, now converted into a pedestrian and bicycling oasis. The zone is crowded with walkers and shoppers at any given time. (Similar zones that I’ve visited are the Strøget in Copenhagen, Denmark and Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu in Istanbul, Turkey.)

800px_Istiklal_Avenue_in_Istanbul_on_3_June_2007.jpgIstiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, Turkey.

It’s an immediate challenge as a resident of the U.S. to enter one of these spaces, where thousands of people are comfortably wandering around, talking, sitting at outdoor cafes or bars, and generally making full use of a public space. Our culture has done its best to diminish and/or eliminate such public spaces. In San Francisco, Market Street has been suggested as our grand public boulevard several times in the past two generations, but somehow the public fails to make use of the space. One could argue that it’s because we’ve never given up on having cars running down the middle of the street, or even that there’s just too much public transit occupying too much space. In Istanbul there’s a charming historic tram running down the middle of the otherwise pedestrian-only Istiklal. Various streets in Zurich, Switzerland also have trams running through pedestrian-only areas, as do many other cities, so the presence of transit alone is not a sufficient explanation of why we have such trouble.

bn3385_18_fbistiklal_caddesi_beyoglu_istanbul_turkey_posters.jpgTram creeps through holiday crowds on Istanbul’s Istiklal.

In Chicago some years ago they closed State Street to cars and installed a pedestrian-only zone, but after less than a year, concluded that the absence of automobile traffic had killed the district as a place to go! Along Market Street there used to be a large number of black granite square blocks serving as benches, but they were all taken out in a punitive effort to deprive homeless folks of a place to rest (granted, some of these benches were more or less colonized by different individuals for hours on end). The result is a less convivial and pleasant cityscape.

It seems that Americans are unaccustomed to making good use of public space. Or perhaps there’s a problem with the design of public spaces here, in contrast to places like Glasgow or Copenhagen or Istanbul, so they’re just not inviting or comfortable. We can say for sure that the disregard and outright contempt shown to homeless people leads to higher levels of stress and confrontation in the public spaces we DO occupy. No wonder. Imagine how difficult it would be to be basically destitute, all your possessions on your back or in a shopping cart, and have to coexist among relatively affluent folks, all properly housed, who are hanging out enjoying themselves. A proper program to animate public space can only be taken seriously if there is an extensive program of providing decent housing to everyone. These are simply inseparable.

family_sits_on_Buchanan_St_8828.jpgFamilies share public bench on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street.

ped_zone_sign_8822.jpgOn Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow.

I also think it’s a chicken-and-egg drama. You can’t have a population that is accustomed to enjoying time in public thoroughfares if there’s no place to congregate away from traffic and the incessant pressure to make a purchase to justify your presence. But the various efforts to create such spaces seem always to fail to attract sufficient numbers of people, leaving them hollow simulations of genuine public spaces. There has to be a population that demands public space and then makes use of it once it exists. And public spaces have to beckon into existence the people who will use them. San Francisco’s waterfront is starting to feel like it’s hosting such a dynamic (though it’s largely tourists who are enjoying it to the fullest).

There are some good signs of this newly demanding public these days. In Dolores Park over the past few years the broad stretch of rich grass sloping up from Dolores Street, south of the tennis courts, north of 19th Street, east of the recreational field, has suddenly and unexpectedly become "Hipster Hill," full of young fixed-gear riders, loiterers, smokers and drinkers, dancers, and all manner of young folks, all insistently staking out a spot on this comfy slope. Funny, because only 3-4 years ago, and for as long as I can remember before that, hardly anyone sat in this area. Now it’s jammed full whenever the weather allows for it.

Is an urge for conviviality and public life growing in San Francisco? Certainly. Can we learn from the ubiquitous public spaces of Europe? I hope so!

sauci_street_w_pigeons_8819.jpgPigeons get their’s too on Sauchiehall Street.


  • Mario Tanev

    I’ve been to many cities in Europe that has such public spaces. The closest example I’ve seen in the US is Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade (, but the pedestrian-only zone is only about 4 blocks long, it is predominantly tourist and it’s not really a community gathering place (e.g. meet me at the promenade). Also the expensive boutique shop to bar/restaurant ratio is too high (compared to say Zurich’s old town).

    I would love to see a wholly pedestrian street come to life in San Francisco, but I believe most of Market street is the wrong place. The reason is that high-rises are not inviting to community.

    Examples where it might work are:
    Castro between 19th and Market, potentially continued on Market down to Church or even Van Ness.

    24th Street between Castro and Bryant. The unfortunate thing is that the shopping area is interrupted between Church and Valencia.

    Some parts of Valencia street.

    Powell street (despite the high-rises the street is always full of people).

    The waterfront (at least Fisherman’s wharf).

    Fillmore Street between Jackson and Eddie.

    Columbus street in North Beach.

    Stockton Street in China Town.

    Clement street in Inner Richmond.

    And lots of other streets that already get pedestrian traffic, that is there are already attractions on them.

    Market Street has really no attractions (except around Powell BART station, but they are not community inviting, just shopping).

    Perhaps with time, if the Castro/Market area becomes pedestrian, attractions will pop up further down market and the pedestrian area can be extended, but otherwise I think it will flop like the Chicago example you’ve mentioned.

  • Omri

    How about Lombard Street? Right now it’s a source of blight with all the people who want to drive down it (here’s a hint, guys: Lombard was built before cars had power brakes, when people were used to roads with switchbacks. If you have power brakes, there is no challenge about the place).

    Imagine that pedestrianized.

  • State Street in Chicago was closed to cars for much longer than a year! It was from 1979 to 1996.

  • Nick

    Do other cities have the same problem of panhandling and low-level crime that would be attracted to these areas? The possibility of centralizing that in any one neighborhood may be enough to keep these projects from happening. I don’t think SF decision makers would be inclined to potentially create a problem they then have to take responsibility for.

  • Shemp

    Church St. in Burlington Vermont works great.

  • theNOB

    Denver also has a the 16th Street Mall, which is a pedestrian and transit mall that runs about a mile in length, and in the process of being extended. It’s success has fluctuated over the years, but still remains a strong draw within the city.

  • Schtu

    Excellent posting.

    I agree that Market street is not a good candidate.

    Although I love experiencing these pedestrian only zones in Europe, both as a tourist and my years living there I think there are limits of applying a European model to American streets.

    I am old enough to remember the disaster of the 1970s where many small town downtowns were made into pedestrian malls across America. It was the final nail in the coffin of downtown retail for many of those communities. At that point the ONLY life blood to these small urban areas was the availability of parking. Taking that away and just providing a bench in its place was a disaster. It is imperative that we do not repeat that mistake.

    The challenges that I see for it to be successful in the states are many but I think doable.

    People are not insensitive just because they do not want to eat lunch next to a person struggling with homelessness. Until an effective policy to deal with the problem of homelessness in San Francisco is enacted, public spaces and institutions will continue to become de facto homeless shelters. Whether it be our libraries or public squares, as long as they are forced to accommodate uses for which they were not designed it will limit their success.

    It is critical that pedestrian zones be integrated with a surrounding urban fabric that does not rely solely on the automobile. There are several examples of single block pedestrian malls that were put in in the 1960s in San Francisco that were eventually ripped out. If the pedestrian zones are not well served by the spaces surrounding them, then they won’t work.

    Homogeneity of Population
    It is important to remember that European cities are much more homogeneous than American cities. A diverse population has different ideas of what constitutes acceptable use of public spaces. Games and music might considered a vibrant way to share space within some communities in America, and yet others might consider it an intrusion. It is much more challenging to accommodate divergent communities in a manner that does not pass judgement on their values.

    San Francisco weather does not lend itself to lingering outside. Southern exposure, shelter from wind all need to be considered when looking at establishing successful pedestrian zones. That is one reason that I think Market Street would be too challenging.

    You simply have to have enough people living and working in the area for a pedestrian zone to be successful. Sadly many people in San Francisco who yearn for the type of cityscape that would support a pedestrian zone frequently rail against projects that would bring the level of density up to support such zones.

    Service Infrastructure
    European businesses/shops often have smaller more frequent deliveries – in vehicles already sized for medieval streets. American retailers often have large deliveries in semis. That is not likely change.

    I also think it is important to remember than the American urban streetscape is much messier. I am not sure that we should abandon that. I think that gives American cities much of their vibrancy. With that said, there are ways to shift the energy to a more user friendly dynamic.

    There is an expression that we Architects use – “The three hardest things to design are chairs, stairs and public squares.” Pedestrian zones are not squares per se, but they are equally as challenging.

  • Winston

    Pedestrian only zones just don’t have a good history of working in the United States. The nearest one to SF is probably K street in Sacramento which despite constant efforts to revitalize it has been a dead zone for decades. That being said, Market Street in SF is probably the place in the U.S. where such a thing has the most chance of working.

  • Fillmore from Jackson to Eddy is my favorite idea from these comments. It has the advantage of a large residential population that would keep it busy at all hours. The sidewalks on Fillmore are already busy day and night.

  • Pat

    The buildings around a pedestrian area have just as much or more to do with a successful pedestrian plaza than whether or not cars are allowed. You have to remember that the layout of European cities existed long before the car did. This means that a lot of the buildings are much closer together, meaning more narrow streets, meaning far less and far slower auto traffic. Every block has a lot of permeable wall space on the first floor, meaning a combination of retail, restaurants/cafes, services and cultural attractions. This creates foot traffic, especially when the convenience of 2 stores across the street from each other is much greater with a 15 foot wide street than an 80 foot wide street.

    Anywhere other than NYC, any open space in the U.S. needs to be surrounded immediately by activities that will attract foot traffic 16+ hours of the day. As it is now, Market Street is so wide and significant that it creates a dead zone that sucks life and culture out of it’s surroundings since the entire corridor is so much bigger than human scale. All these wonderful models in Europe were built on a city grid that was originally human scale, as opposed to U.S. city grids that have wide, high speed streets everywhere contributing to a lack of street-side life. Large, centralized open space is far less important and far less helpful than tiny, distributed open spaces throughout a cityscape that make use of mixed-use planning and small-scale activities on the ground floors of buildings.

    You drive to large, centralized open spaces in order to walk. Small, distributed spaces encourage you to walk around your neighborhood, making a car less necessary and creating more demand for good transit options.

    No effin’ way am I going to proofread this rant of a comment

  • I agree with Mario Tanev that Powell St up to Union Square would be the best candidate for closure. Maybe a trial closure (why doesn’t Union Square have a street fair?). Maybe remove parking and widen the sidewalks to see if that increases pedestrian use of the street, or seems to calm the bustle instead.

  • DaveO

    you’re romanticizing a bit the success of pedestrianized areas in Europe. Avenue St. Denis is probably the longest pedestrianized street in Paris. In a city absolutely rich in inviting spaces, that’s one of the least inviting of them all. The Rue Mouffetard is better, but it’s a tourist attraction.

    A lot of the small European towns chose to close to traffic more due to logistics – the old parts of town didn’t have streets wide enough to accommodate cars.

  • ZA

    A late comment – thanks for the observations Chris, and I think your photos already capture a big reason why some European pedestrian districts seem to work better than American attempts to do the same…food for the eyes.

    The European photos show long views, richly filled with detail, with either a bending path or a unique structure at the end of the line of sight … these arrangements inherently draw in the eye and feed a latent exploratory curiosity in the human mind. The US public spaces borrow from plazas and squares, not linear paths, and often greet the pedestrian with a visual obstruction that is largely indistinguishible from the rest of the surrounding buildings.

    Now that the old Embarcadero is gone, I think Market St stands a good chance as a linear pedestrian boulevard, like Barcelona’s La Rambla. However, it may require more intense mixed-commercial use on adjacent streets to get to European or Asian pedestrian intensity. The Embarcadero Center largely fails to achieve this (in much the way Paris’s Les Halle fails), and the Financial District at either end of Market is excessively dead of urban life for much of the day. If the pedestrianized Market St is to extend up to Van Ness, the challenges of Civic Center and the pressured hotels (besides the broad recession challenges for retail on Market St locations already) would have to be addressed fairly.

    Also, something needs to be done about the tourbus concentrations on Market and 8th St.


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