In the postwar blur of suburban sprawl, interstate highways, white flight, and social uprisings, American cities saw their downtowns drained of life in the 1960s. One of the more common attempts to revive them was the development of pedestrian malls. Closed to vehicular traffic and inspired by successful pedestrianized areas in Europe, these shopping streets turned otherwise normal downtown thoroughfares into strolling spaces lined with ground floor retail, seating, planters, and pedestrian amenities. They were seen as a way to revitalize downtowns in the ’60s and ’70s, and re-create the kinds of lively, interesting public spaces that once made up the heart of cities. Enclosed suburban shopping malls were growing in popularity across the country, particularly in the suburbs. If it worked inside, the thinking went, maybe it could work outside, too.
It did not. The majority of pedestrian malls struggled to lure shoppers and eventually were reopened to vehicular traffic, including malls in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Chicago, ending what was, for most cities, a brief experiment in creating pedestrian-focused shopping areas.
But some pedestrian malls have managed to live surprisingly long lives, and could suggest ways for cities and developers to bring back an urban form many have written off as a failure.
Recent research published in the Journal of Urbanism looked at 125 pedestrian malls in the U.S., analyzing their life spans and identifying the social and demographic conditions of the cities in which they were built to see what factors contributed to their success and/or failure. Most were created in the 1960s and ’70s, and demolished or reopened to traffic in the 1980s and ’90s. Only a handful have been built since 2000, though more streets are being pedestrianized during the pandemic. Of the 125 malls studied, only 43 are still in existence.
Large populations and high median incomes would seem necessary for pedestrian malls to survive, but they’re not always a prerequisite for success, according to the study, coauthored by Stephan Schmidt, an associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University.
Schmidt and coauthors Samantha Matuke and Wenzheng Li found that the most significant factors determining the longevity of a pedestrian mall were high population density, low median age of residents, and a shorter mall length. Their findings also backed up previous research showing that successful pedestrian malls tend to benefit from factors such as proximity to a beach (Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade) or a university (Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall), a high annual number of sunny days (San Diego’s Horton Plaza), and whether they are located in what’s already a tourist destination (Manhattan’s recently pedestrianized Times Square).
And though those factors tend to exist more often in bigger cities, about 80% of surviving pedestrian malls are actually in cities with populations of fewer than 100,000. “Main street renewal was more important in smaller places than larger places,” Schmidt says of the pedestrian mall boom in the ’60s and ’70s. However, the pedestrian malls and pedestrianized streets that have been built in recent years are in big cities. “I think that’s only going to accelerate under COVID,” he says.
To better understand how and why some of these malls managed to survive, the researchers looked into five outlier malls that have lasted even without factors like lots of sunny days or a younger population. These malls—in Boston; Seattle; Savannah, Georgia; Schenectady, New York; and Rochester, Minnesota—should have failed but didn’t.
Some of the shared characteristics among these surviving malls include the presence of buildings higher than two stories that create a sense of containment, a high percentage of ground floor transparency for window shopping, sun shades and rain awnings, and plenty of seating. In other words, “Places that have been thought through to some extent,” Schmidt says. “Not just close it off, pour some concrete, and hope people show up.”
Schmidt says further research would be needed to determine how much of a role these design factors play in a pedestrian mall’s success, and whether factors like store composition or public events have more sway. “I’m reticent to suggest that we found the solution to make these work in Rust Belt cities or cities with declining populations,” he says. But for urban planners and developers looking to help their pedestrian mall survive—or even open a new one—such factors may be useful in giving these places longer, more successful lives, and adding more vibrant public spaces back into U.S. cities.