Today I will introduce the topic of streetscape design as it pertains to walkability. Walkability is actually about human comfort, and what it takes for a pedestrian to feel at ease and enjoy their walking experience. The pedestrian realm deserves as much attention as the automobile portion of the road and like many projects if you build it, they will come.
We have all heard the argument that it is too hot to walk in Phoenix and being a native here I can tell that for some of the year that is true. However, how long do those extreme temperatures last? This chart shows the average monthly temperatures for Phoenix. Only 5 months out of the year are temps above 90 degrees and during the other months, temperatures are very comparable to those you would experience in any “walkable” city most of which have harsh winters. So the heat is not really our issue and now that we have acknowledged it, let’s moves on.
A well designed street section is one that is beneficial for both cars and pedestrians. When you begin to diagram successful streets you begin to notice commonalities that are attributing to the successes of the block and the businesses it serves. Think of some of the most memorable streets you’ve walked down, if you’re like me you drew it out or at least took pictures, and think of why it was so memorable. Chances are there was a combination of the following characteristics at work.
Regardless of building heights, streetscape design really takes place at the 15 foot level and below. This is where the intimacy between the pedestrian and their surroundings lay. An example of a well designed street might begin with the area directly in front of the store. This is the interaction of the pedestrian with the establishment. It could be anything from a window display, to tables and chairs, items for sale or even a sign. This space is dynamic and interesting and most of all is allowed to spill out into the public realm. The next portion would be the traversable area usually 4-5 feet wide and clear of obstacles so that the pedestrian can walk uninterrupted. The third zone I like to call the barrier. This is where human comfort is really enhanced. This zone can be filled with large planter boxes, on street parking, bike racks, parking meters, and/or light poles both tall for traffic and low pedestrians. This is an essential component of human comfort and walkability because it provides a physical separation from faster moving bikes and cars. The final zone is for the automobile. This area works best for the pedestrian when it is narrow and the cars are driven slow. However it works best for the driver when it is wide and the average speed is higher and more efficient. This area must be designed with discretion but always with human comfort in mind. In general, the wider the street, the wider the sidewalk should be to aid feelings of safety and comfort.
The fact is that several of our downtown streets have the dimensional qualities appropriate to make a walkable street. The problem is a lack of engagement with the pedestrian. Too many blocks have designated too much space to a single building and most of our sidewalks are lined with long expanses of un-engaging walls that are out of scale with the human body. The solution could be liner retail and on-street parking for a majority of these streets but whatever we do, it need to have the pedestrian in mind.