June 22, 2005

If A Pedestrian Plaza Is Good, A HUGE Plaza Isn’t Better

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.


  1. Were there any benches or flower beds with low bench-like walls to sit on? That really turns a pedestrian off
    when there is no place to sit. People can't gather without a place to sit. People naturally go where other people
    are, and if theres no place to sit, how can people gather? A planner friend of mine used ot live in Cleveland and hated it.

  2. That's a really good point. There aren't enough benches compared to the available space in City Hall Plaza, for example. I don't remember now about the Cleveland park near the water; but if there were benches, certainly no one was using them!

  3. I happen to agree with you completely. I'm sure what is there now in Cleveland is much better than what was there before, but Cleveland (and this is true throughout the downtown) lacks that inviting place for pedestrians to congregate comfortably. I found this to be true of most Ohio cities, with the exception of one, Columbus (if you get a chance to stop there sometime, you should definitely check out the Short North arts district, and the German Village). I used to live in Ohio (Dayton, C-bus on weekends), and because of the lack of walkable places, it was not a tough decision to leave when my girlfriend was offered a job in Sacramento. Cleveland does have some neat, older, more cultural neighborhoods (Little Italy for one), but sometimes you have to venture through some seedy areas to reach them. After all, it is the poorest city in America. I did enjoy my winter visit there, perhaps it would be a better place to visit during the summer. But like every city in America, they need better connectivity to their pedestrian destination zones.

    Oh and let's not even talk about bike lanes. I may get too upset discussing this topic in the Midwest context. Ohio does have one of the best trail systems in the country, especially Southwest Ohio.

    By the way, I am a huge fan of this site. I visit quite often. You are a huge inspirtation for creating my weblog, although it is not quite finished so I'm not ready to unveil it yet. For now, I'll just put my URL as my personal website. Hopefully by the end of this month. I'm sure you will be hearing from me again, there are several posts I'd like to make comments on, including one about Sacramento. Keep up the excellent work!