I'm just back from a business trip to Cleveland, a city I was fully prepared to like for its human-scale pedestrian environment after hearing about revitalization along the waterfront. And indeed I saw a lot of nice things along the waterfront in the small slice of the city I visited - parks, pedestrian plazas, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Browns Stadium, a science museum. I didn't see the area before, but I imagine it's a lot nicer than it used to be. But somehow, it didn't all work as a vibrant urban environment the way I expected it to.
This morning, for example, I walked down to Voinovich Park. There was open space to the lakefront on a beautiful early summer morning. I fully expected to have a lovely walk. But I didn't like it. Beyond the Hall of Fame, it was pretty much deserted except for a couple of guys cleaning in the park, and the massive open expanse made me slightly uncomfortable. I ended up turning around instead of walking along the water.
What went wrong?
The expanse was too huge, not offering the "sense of enclosure" that pedestrians naturally crave. It's the Boston City Hall Plaza syndrome - thinking that creating a huge open expanse without traffic will naturally entice people to fill it. But it won't. Without what authors of Suburban Nation call that sense of enclosure, creating the feel of an outdoor room, the space doesn't feel inviting. There has to be careful landscaping and placement of buildings to turn a big open urban space into an attractive on-foot environment, not just some decorative light poles and a few trees.
Compounding the problem was the fact that things were just too spread out. It was technically possible to walk from one destination to another, but those area destinations were far enough apart that they didn't feel like a single, coherent unit. Urban waterfronts shouldn't be laid out like suburban strip malls. Boston's waterfront works in part because of its higher density, with enough open space to enjoy but not so much that it feels like a wasteland.
Finally, I didn't see any major residential areas in the immediate area around the park, and that's a pity. Apartments or condos filling in some of the empty space could have helped generate foot traffic from people walking to nearby mass transit or to their offices. Mixed-use is important to give life to revitalized urban areas.