Walkability has worked its way into the lexicon of cities looking to revitalize and attract talent. These built environments that foster rich pedestrian experiences with vibrant streetscapes and a mix of amenities are not only sought after commodities, but also have been found to increase property values (Walking the Walk, CEOs for Cities), something that has not gone unnoticed by real estate agents. Tools such as WalkScore are being integrated into real estate search sites, used by buyers and sellers alike to capture the added value of proximity to transit, shopping, schools, parks, and more. Typically, more compact neighborhoods with a mix of uses score higher on walkability. However there are additional factors beyond existing amenities that contribute to high-quality walkable environments, specifically within the built form of a city or neighborhood.
One of these factors is the definition of the street. Many celebrated pedestrian environments have streets that create “outdoor rooms.” These spaces have definitive streetwalls, generated by buildings with contributing elements such as street trees. Continuous streetwalls not only provide a sense of enclosure, but also visual interest. There is a finite distance people are willing to walk past empty lots and vacant buildings, often referred to as “missing teeth,” before the street becomes unappealing for pedestrians.
Though not a unique problem for Louisville, there are an unfortunately high number of streets in our densest neighborhoods that fail to create these outdoor rooms. In the central business district, aside from West Main Street and perhaps Fourth Street, there are very few examples of continuous streetwalls on both sides of the street. Missing teeth along East Market, at significant locations in NuLu, break up what otherwise is a solid pedestrian experience. Even along Baxter and Bardstown Road, arguably one of our most successful walkable commercial corridors, there are gaps that present opportunities to strengthen the street in key places.
Third Street, a street that is one block from the spine of our city along Fourth, is one example that illustrates our streetwall shortcomings. Along a half-mile stretch of Third Street, from Jefferson to Broadway, less than 42% of the street has buildings on both sides at any one section of roadway. If you don’t include parking garages, that number drops to about 14%. To make things worse, the pattern of existing buildings shifts between the east and west side of the street so the pedestrian experience is further fragmented. This can help explain why there are so few pedestrians seen walking along this corridor.
The map above illustrates the fragmentation of the streetwall along Third Street. The red areas indicate the numerous surface lots and the blue show the parking garages. Though newer models of structured parking are incorporating first level retail or offices that reduce the negative impact they can have on the quality of the pedestrian environment, the examples along Third Street, such as the ~300 foot long street frontage garage image below, offer a marginal improvement to surface lot blight.
Beyond the incredibly poor streetwall along Third Street is a monumental failing of a linchpin of the street, the corner. The intersection at Jefferson is the only place where there are buildings on all four corners along this stretch (and that is only because I am including parking garages and a faceless convention center). This is important because strong corners can soften the effects of a weak streetwall by presenting travelers with a sense of massing and density. Strong corners provide the “cover” from which people judge the street beyond. Even surface lot bombed-out sections of street can be masked if it has strong corners with human-scaled buildings at its intersections.
The south-east corner of Muhammad Ali and Third, where the Urban Design Studio is located (pictured above), is one of the only examples of a solid streetwall along the half-mile corridor.
Unfortunately, right across the street is another massive parking garage and a surface lot on the south-west corner of Muhammad Ali and Third (picture above). Haven’t seen the plans, but hopefully once the redevelopment of the incoming Embassy Suites is complete, something other than a surface lot and garage entrance will grace this important corner along the corridor.
Moving south on Third Street visitors will be greeted with another unfortunate intersection at Chestnut. The two expansive craters of surface lots on the east side of Third (above) completely destroy any sense that this is in a city setting. Regrettably there is almost a mirror image of this view just west of this location beyond Fifth or Sixth Street, both victims of previous urban renewal efforts.
At the end of this stretch of Third is Broadway. Aside from the excessively expansive road width or Broadway, this could be a great city streetcorner. Some beautiful historic mid-rise buildings grace three of the corners, however the sense of density is negated by a gigantic surface lot on the south-west corner in front of the Downtown Free Public Library. This site offers so much potential to re-weave the urban fabric along both prominent corridors. I would include an image of what building was on this corner, but I am afraid that it would bring some people to tears.
Corners play a significant anchoring role even on streets that are otherwise very successful pedestrian environments. East Market between Hancock and Campbell is an example of a great walkable environment with an almost solid streetwall with most of the buildings meeting the sidewalk offering pedestrians great storefronts to view the activity at the various restaurants, offices, art galleries, and retail shops. The red areas in the map above indicate the two major corner surface lots that offer an amazing opportunity to strengthen street and elevate Nulu to a truly urban neighborhood environment. The green circle points out a corner building that manages to extend the pedestrian experience and provide an anchor to a section of Market that would otherwise fade off well before the south side of the 800 block ends.
Though trees help obscure the empty lot at the north-west corner of Market and Shelby (see the left side of the image above), this empty corner lot is keeping the area down by destroying the sense of density right in the middle of NuLu. With a streetscape improvement project on the books and talk of a potential development on this site, NuLu could become one of Louisville’s best examples of a vibrant pedestrian environment.
The above image shows the Rye building anchoring what essentially is the current end of the retail corridor as a solid unit. Even with the expansive surface lot between the rest of the shops on the south side, Rye makes it possible to extend the perception of the district and imagine one day the continuation of storefronts, housing and other amenities being developed eastward.
Most successful urban neighborhood streets that promote pedestrian activity have buildings built to the sidewalk, particularly at their corners. However, Garage Bar (above) is one example of how a well executed design of the outdoor space, when used sparingly along the corridor, can not only maintain the dense urban feel of the street, but actually improve it and become a central focus of the area for pedestrian activity.
Completing Louisville’s streetwalls downtown and in other urban areas across the city will take decades and many streets will simply never be complete. Walkability and the development of rich, vibrant pedestrian environments is becoming a key ingredient in creating successful cities in the 21st century. In order to have the greatest impact on improving Louisville’s walkability from an urban design perspective, we should consider a strategy that focuses on anchoring the corners along corridors that have the greatest potential to enhance the pedestrian environment. This approach could work both in existing successful areas, like the ones presented, as well as neighborhood corridors in need of revitalization. This approach won’t work everywhere though, particularly along corridors that have no hope of becoming pedestrian filled streetscapes. However, as we begin to identify potential pedestrian rich corridors and create an inventory of opportunity sites for strong corners throughout the city, our hope is that this approach will add one more tool to move Louisville toward the vibrant walkable city it has the potential to be.