The Future of Shared Streets
The pandemic prompted a need for more shared streets. Now cities want to make them permanent. Here’s what needs to happen to successfully reclaim our roads for the pedestrian.
At the start of the pandemic, many cities across the nation implemented temporary road closures to make more space for pedestrians. Complying with the initial six-foot physical distancing requirements, this move allowed restaurants to expand onto sidewalks, parking spaces and streets so that communities could safely come together outside. As the pandemic wanes, cities — and some private businesses — are exploring ways to make these street closures a permanent fixture across our communities.
The immediate implementation of ‘shared streets’ in the early days of the pandemic made it abundantly clear how closing streets to motor vehicles improves walkability, creates a greater sense of place and fosters community engagement. Now, cities like Denver have an opportunity to move toward permanent shared public spaces to bring long-term value to their city centers and neighborhoods.
To successfully transition temporary street closures into a true community asset, there are three key components that need to be carefully considered and implemented.
1. Public Policy
Leading the way for other municipalities, the City and County of Denver is in the early stages of developing a standard process for making shared streets permanent. The effort is intended to establish standards and policy guidance, from consistent material options, accessibility requirements, location analysis, in addition to outlining a process for implementation, including plans for design development, installation, ongoing maintenance responsibilities and local, state and federal funding opportunities. One of the goals of the program is to establish a consistent framework and set a foundation of guidelines for all shared street projects within the city.
Transitioning shared streets that were created on a temporary basis into a permanent feature of a city’s DNA will be a lengthy process and require funding for both initial investment and maintenance. This will also require cities to shift their thinking in how to maintain these spaces because permanent shared streets are more akin to traditional public spaces like plazas and small urban parks. The challenge to secure necessary funding for both implementation and ongoing maintenance will likely hold up many jurisdictions in their decision-making, pushing potential implementation out until clear policies are in place.
Traces of the history and culture of the neighborhood comes through in various ways, including a recent mural of the late Congressman John Lewis by local artist Thomas “Detour” Evans
2. People-First Design
The design of shared streets is perhaps the most critical component of their success since their designs prioritize pedestrian experience over the movement of cars. This presents an important opportunity for cities to capitalize on the potential to create more equitable, healthy public spaces that can positively transform neighborhoods for generations to come by repurposing public right-of-way to more socially and environmentally-oriented places.
The 39th Avenue Greenway that runs through Denver’s Cole and Clayton neighborhoods, for example, represents one portion of the larger “Platte to Park Hill” stormwater project to create a stormwater collection and conveyance channel. While the drive and funding for the project had the need for improved civic infrastructure at its core, there was an opportunity to augment the underused land for a greater public purpose that provides the surrounding populations access to greenspace, the natural environment, and a pedestrian-oriented public realm — meeting both the critical infrastructure and social needs in one of Denver’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The shared street and greenway serves multiple users — cyclists, pedestrians and neighbors — all enjoying the space alongside each other. It also serves as an important space for other cultural, artistic, and commercial pop-ups, which can adapt and change based on the community’s interests. Traces of the history and culture of the neighborhood comes through in various ways, including a recent mural of the late Congressman John Lewis by local artist Thomas “Detour” Evans, exposing old railway tracks, and a new commercial pop-up, Nowhere Coffee.
A recent analysis of Yelp data discovered an increase in consumer interest in restaurants that were adjacent to a shared street during the pandemic
3. Benefits for Businesses
Before creating more permanent shared streets, cities must consider the impact the transition from car-traffic to foot-traffic will have on surrounding businesses. Historically, the retail industry has appreciated more drive-by traffic with the ability to park near the storefront. As the retail experience continues to evolve due to online retailers, quick delivery and pickup services, pedestrian traffic is beginning to take preference among retailers.
A recent analysis of Yelp data discovered an increase in consumer interest in restaurants that were adjacent to a shared street during the pandemic. The analysis identified restaurants in cities across the country like Boise, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco and compared the activity and engagement of their Yelp accounts (amount of views, posted photos, and user reviews) pre-pandemic to when a shared street program was in place. Each area experienced an increase in activity during its car-free period. Restaurants in Boston’s Little Italy experienced as much as a 61% increase.
The pandemic showed us the possibilities of what shared streets can do: they bring all walks of life together, proved that urban space can be repurposed and reinvigorated for social gathering and play, and provided more opportunities for communities to enjoy the outdoors. With strategic planning, community engagement, and the right public-private partnerships — shared streets can be successfully integrated as a permanent and sought-after feature in neighborhoods across the country.
Meredith Wenskoski, President and Founder of Livable Cities Studio is an urban designer, planner, and landscape architect whose work focuses on people, equity, and resilience. With a passion for designing spaces that emphasize connection and the human experience, Meredith’s 18 years of experience spans parks and public space design, streetscapes, urban design, public housing, and parks planning.
With a focus on the intersection of housing, equity, public realm, and resiliency, Meredith’s human-centered design work creates long-term benefits for people and places. Meredith is distinguished for her strategic leadership, collaborative spirit, and ability to build and navigate partnerships across sectors and functions.
Meredith has led myriad complex planning and design efforts, navigating large-scale public engagement processes and collaborating with the City and County of Denver, Denver Housing Authority, and Highline Canal Conservancy, and numerous other public entities.