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Designing for Pedestrians can make Shopping (and Communities!) Better

When someone tries to entice me with Black Friday shopping, my response is "That sounds terrible." Shopping, in general, makes me cringe. The idea of rising at 3 AM to wait in line outside of a giant store when it is below freezing outside is enough to turn me into the Grinch.

I'm not the only one who shudders at shopping. Yes, Americans are still shop-a-holics as brain science has proven we get a rush when we buy something, but much of our shopping is turning to the convenience of online buying. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible to compete with the major online retailers, but we can look at our physical stores and ask what can we do better to create a pleasant shopping experience. One theory of what drives customers away from areas of in-person commerce is these spaces are not designed for humans, they're designed for automobiles!

The majority of brick and mortar shopping seems to take place at big box stores, which we have to drive to, find a parking spot, then risk life and limb across lanes of moving traffic to enter a literal warehouse complete with harsh lighting, stale air, and other customers who are not happy to be there. After walking what seems like miles to find the two things on the list, we pack up in the car and move to the next store. Shopping literally and figuratively drives me crazy!

Studies show the top two things that attract customers to a physical shopping location is a variety of options and the environment or experience. While generally, I may be a shopping scrooge, there have been several times that my shopping experience has been an absolute delight. I can say without a doubt it was because that company or community designed the shopping environment for the pedestrian. I think we can all agree we've encountered far more sociopaths behind the wheel than walking on a sidewalk.

Post-World War II, most American communities were designed with the automobile in mind, not the pedestrian. For instance, if you see a person walking down Broadway in Quincy or Jackson street in Macomb, that person looks out of place. That is because those commercial zones were never designed for the pedestrian. Auto-centric design places the pedestrian on a narrow sidewalk (or sometimes no sidewalk at all) sandwiched between a busy road and a sea of parking lots, with the store far off in the distance.

What techniques can we use to make built environments more pedestrian friendly and shopping more enjoyable?

Perhaps most importantly, the sense of enclosure helps to create a comfortable pedestrian space. Bring the far-flung stores up to the street to help shape the pedestrian space and make it a more desirable place to be.

Hide the parking behind the buildings and embrace on-street parking. Often parking is the most contentious of issues, with big box stores having to design for maximum occupancy, which usually occurs once on Black Friday. The rest of the year, half of the parking lot remains empty. What's nice about pedestrian-oriented spaces is they require less parking.

More plants! Living plants help to brighten and tie together streetscapes. Planting areas can also serve to absorb stormwater. Street trees can assist in creating a sense of enclosure and shading for a more comfortable pedestrian experience.

Building frontage should be permeable, which means there should be windows to see into shops and restaurants. Doors to move in and out of buildings. Overhangs to protect pedestrians from rain or hot sun. It seems so many new buildings fronting streets are windowless brick facades. Without even a door along the sidewalk.

Sidewalks should be 12-feet wide. That allows people to pass each other and outdoor seating for a restaurant or sidewalk sale for a retailer.

Amenities should be present and decorative like trash and recycling bins. Lighting should be scaled to the pedestrian. There's no reason to have the same street lighting in a neighborhood or shopping area as there is along the interstate.

Narrow streets are better for pedestrians and reduce traffic accidents. Many may argue, "Those streets are main collectors and they need to be wider." While our communities may need these streets to move the bulk of traffic, an interesting trend happens when lanes are added and widened to accommodate traffic. Those streets that are expanded tend to have more accidents and a greater number of speed limit violators. Plus, widening roads does little and sometimes has the inverse effect on traffic congestion.

What if your community is stuck with a massive thoroughfare through its center and there is no changing that fact? There are things that can be done to calm traffic and improve pedestrian comfort and safety. Roundabouts are great traffic calming tools at intersections and studies have shown they reduce collisions. 'Bump-outs' widen the sidewalk at intersections which is a visual cue for drivers to slow down and reduces the distance a pedestrian has to walk across the street. Plant street trees to give the illusion of a narrower street, which slows down traffic. Research shows that tree-lined streets trick the brain into slowing down the car.

Build neighborhoods not shopping centers. I have been to a few incredible shopping areas that are built for pedestrians. However, when talking with shop owners they can barely stay afloat. Businesses are moving in and out constantly. This is because they were all built outside of the town or city. No one lived nearby. To be a viable commercial area, these places should be part of the community, not outside of it. While these places certainly designed for the safety and comfort of the pedestrian, they did not incorporate them where people live and work, which is why they struggle.

Greenspace is a critical component for any type of development from neighborhoods to retail. Incorporating pocket parks or the traditional town square aesthetic is a relaxing space for shoppers, a place for husbands to retreat, and kids to run. Greenspace also can play host to events like farmers' markets, live music, fairs, and more that help to build a sense of identity for the community.

Want to see a great example of spaces designed for pedestrians? Head down to Disney World. The pedestrian planning of Disney considers everything down to the aromas emitted from the shops. There are low, middle, and high price ranges from apparel to food. If visiting Mickey is not in the cards, you can explore the downtown areas in most Midwestern communities. These were often developed prior to the explosive rise of automobiles. Most of these traditional designs are pedestrian-oriented and express character, which is something much of our current-day development lack.

The Big Picture

If you have read this far, thank you, but you may be thinking, "I thought this was going to be about shopping. What is the point to learn about designing pedestrian spaces? I'm not a city planner." First, yes, I completely lured you in with the opening on shopping so I could talk about designing the pedestrian realm. Second, the major point behind this long-winded post is while most citizens are not consulted on say the design of a building, more municipalities are including their residents as part of the community planning process. Now that we've got our spot at the table its time to learn about good design principles that not only build healthy neighborhoods but can draw in consumers and keep our local businesses viable in a global marketplace. We all have a voice to raise awareness of local design issues, so we must train our brains to think how the built environment can affect our quality of life.

What was discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to community planning. Feel free to contact me or your nearest Extension community and economic development educator for more resources on the issues and solutions that surround community design and civic engagement.

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