Build it and they will come: Time to open Chicago’s neighborhood streets

February 12, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Last winter I visited New York City for the first time in five years. I remember seeing the new pedestrian spaces the city created by repurposing street space from motorists. The only other pedestrian plazas I’d seen before were in Europe; I didn’t think I’d ever see something on the scale of New York’s plazas program.

34 St pedestrian plaza, near the flagship Macy’s store, in Midtown Manhattan. Image: WNYC/NYC DOT

Even in cold December when I was there, many people were still sitting outside enjoying a coffee or chatting with other people.

When I heard yesterday that the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago was proposing 20 spots to do the same thing as New York did, I was thrilled (see coverage at Streetsblog and DNAInfo, as well as Active Trans’s own release). It’s great news to hear after the sad news that Chicago won’t have any Open Streets events this year. What’s better than permanent open streets?

Off the top of my head, I can think of only one great place in Chicago that already acts as a pedestrian plaza, and it is just as busy as the 34 St plaza in the image above. Kempf Plaza is a small car-free space nestled between mixed-use buildings in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. In the summer, it’s bustling almost every day. Parents let their kids run around while they chat with friends, people buy food from nearby vendors, and many people walk to the space from their homes in the adjacent blocks. It’s the community’s backyard, even though many of the homes in the area have their own.

Kempf Plaza, Lincoln Square.

Kempf Plaza, Lincoln Square.

The Tribune had an article in 2010 asking why there weren’t other pedestrian plazas throughout the city, again citing Kempf Plaza as a “poster child” for such spaces. I’m glad the article offers a little history on Kempf Plaza (emphasis mine):

…it resulted from an enlightened, late 1970s infrastructure project that turned a single-block of diagonal Lincoln Avenue into a one-way street. At the street’s midpoint, where Giddings had intersected Lincoln, Giddings was transformed into a cul-de-sac, clearing space for an outdoor plaza.

At first, people complained that their two-way traffic was being taken away, but almost no one complains now, especially after later changes endowed the plaza with handsome paving, a performance platform and a multi-tiered fountain…

Yes, a plaza that has existed for around 35 years is still successful today, unlike the failed State St pedestrian mall that everyone brings up. Yes, one of the city’s pedestrianization projects failed. But another one is thriving. And unlike the 1980s, more people are moving into cities, desire walkable neighborhoods, are driving less, aren’t shopping at suburban malls, and so on…

I chuckle when people make statements like this, from the DNAInfo article:

Another neighborhood resident who identified himself as “Gary R.” visibly scoffed when he heard the plan while standing on the half-mile stretch of Broadway packed with businesses and motor vehicle traffic.

I don’t want to pick on Gary, but I am willing to bet that the majority of motor vehicles “packed” on the street were driving somewhere else, not to the businesses along the street. And unlike the pedestrians walking on the street, the drivers of those cars probably won’t “pop in” to a local shop if they’re going somewhere else. Broadway between Diversey and Belmont, one of the stretches Active Trans proposed, is absolutely thriving in the summer and full of pedestrians and bicyclists. Motor vehicle traffic from the lakeshore unproductively fills the streets, pollutes the air (with exhaust and the sound of horns).

Looking into it even further, many homes on the blocks immediately adjacent to that strip (yellow) are car-free – well above the city’s average (25%):

My commute/car ownership map demonstrates that many homes along at least one of Active Trans's proposals are car-free already.

My commute/car ownership map demonstrates that many homes along at least one of Active Trans’s proposals are car-free already. Map data: US Census. Street base layer © Open Street Map Contributors.

“No,” he said. “Why would you want to do that? This is a busy street that’s been here for hundreds of years — that doesn’t make any sense.”

I’m no historian, but cars weren’t being driven on a mass scale until the 1920s-30s. I’m willing to bet that before Broadway was ruled by cars, it was ruled by pedestrians.

I’m surprised that few of the articles I read mentioned parking. I believe that this would be an issue for business owners as well as the private company in control of metered curbside parking. But from what I know, this city has plenty of thinkers who would be willing to put their heads together to solve these issues. And as far as transit access goes: buses could be integrated into the space. I can think of one space in Paris that has an exclusive bus lane nestled in between the sidewalk and seating areas. There’s also a Vélib bike sharing station!


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Further back, you can see a bus coming down the lane. (Side note: the buses in Paris don’t honk. They instead emit a digital sound – listen here –  that is loud enough to warn pedestrians to move, but quiet enough not to bother people sitting outside or living upstairs.)

The DNAInfo article cited my idea to pedestrianize Michigan Avenue, which I wrote about last December. Michigan Ave (the “Mag Mile”) is also in Active Trans’s list. Where Michigan Ave would be a sort of “flagship” pedestrianized street, I think it would be easier to start with these smaller sections of streets that would become centerpieces of entire neighborhoods. Every neighborhood should have great plazas for people just like Kempf Plaza in Lincoln Square. At first, motorists would be frustrated in finding another way to get around… but they’d still get around. It’s worth the extra few minutes of driving to open spaces back up to pedestrians.

I’m excited to see what becomes of these proposals. Hopefully we can learn from the lesson of Kempf Plaza in the late 70’s – just build it, and they will come.