Evolving venues for strolling with strangers

The Olmsted-designed Mall,  the only straight concourse in 28 miles of Central Park paths, can accommodate thousands strolling together in a show of classlessness.

The Olmsted-designed Mall, the only straight concourse in 28 miles of Central Park paths, can accommodate thousands strolling together in a show of classlessness.

For gregarious or anonymous strolling among crowds, we want still wider, perhaps specially built promenades. These public strolling plazas can be isolated from city bustle, like the malls Olmsted designed inside major parks or, as is increasingly being done, they can be part of the city’s flow, like the pedestrian esplanades of the Champs Elysées or the Spanish alamedas.

Olmsted was cutting edge for his day. Until his and Paxton’s public grounds in England, parks had been the private riding and hunting preserves of the aristocracy, the only class with the leisure time to take advantage of them. Similarly, they strolled in their own and royal gardens. Those great gardens’ wide walkways were designed to be filled with members of their uppermost class strolling in their elaborate finery.

The apparently overwide paths at Versailles were designed for promenades in full regalia of  the more than 5000 courtiers who crowded the town after it became the Court of France in 1682.

The apparently overwide paths at Versailles were designed for promenades in full regalia of the more than 5000 courtiers who crowded the town after it became the Court of France in 1682.

By contrast, Olmsted wanted strolling pageantry to involve citizens of the republic from all classes, mingling along major city boulevards. When he could not convince city officials in New York to weave promenades into the city fabric, he designed them into his major parks there and elsewhere as malls.

The City Beautiful movement was the next major generator of what was hoped would be greenswards for strolling around tall isolated buildings. That hope proved illusory, with the open spaces around the towers turning into no-man’s-lands, indefensible places for which no one felt responsible and to which gravitated all sorts of anti-social uses.

During the last three or four decades, the latest urban green-space movement has focused on extending Olmsted’s “emerald necklace” idea of connecting greenery filled parks with tree-lined pedestrian corridors to cities other than Boston. These linkages are along railways, and greenways, natural corridors beside streams, marshes, and former canals.

These pedestrian corridors are also along streets, part of the green-street, shared street, and complete-street movements currently key to making urban centers more pedestrian friendly. This cluster of concepts includes limiting space allotted to cars, slowing vehicular traffic, and maximizing public transit, all trends aligning in mature economies with a recent, steady drop in car ownership and driving, particularly among the young and urban residents.

The results can be seen in places as diverse as Poynton (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVW-YAQCSVs&feature=youtu.be) and London, England, and both Portlands, Oregon and Maine, in the States.  (http://designforwalking.com/path-gallery/portland-oregon/)

Urbanites and tourists flock to take advantage of the latest wave of shared streets and carfree streets, as here in lower Manhattan.

Urbanites and tourists flock to take advantage of the latest wave of shared streets and carfree streets, as here in lower Manhattan.

In New York City, this movement is starting to achieve some of the goals Olmsted had sought. Parts of Broadway and Ninth Avenue have been made permanently car-free, while Central Park roads not part of the city street grid become car-free on weekends, and, since 2008, the Summer Streets program converts several arterials into walkways on most Saturdays in August. In the South Bronx, green streets are planned to connect most neighborhoods with recently built riverside parks.

Of course, some cities never abandoned the idea of mass strolling on city streets. In many Italian cities, the afternoon or evening passeggiata still brings out throngs of young and old, as it has for generations.

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