Washburn

Making Downtowns Liveable

Harold Henderson of Build a Better Burb interviewed author Ned Crankshaw, author of Creating Vibrant Public Spaces: Streetscape Design in Commercial and Historic Districts. He chairs the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky.

Henderson: If you could give a community  “dos” and three “don’ts” to make it more livable and attractive, what would they be? Ned Crankshaw: DO center all hubs of activity as close to the center as possible. This includes schools, parks, other community facilities, and, of course, commercial enterprises. Use public buildings to support private enterprise by concentrating more people (customers). DO develop a pedestrian walkability plan for the community. Use every project – whether it is a street improvement, property development, or a new public facility – to implement the plan and improve the quality of pedestrian spaces in streets. DON’T design for visitors. Design for your own residents, and visitors will be taken care of in the process. DON’T tear down buildings unless there is a specific funded plan to replace them with better building(s). What are the best ways to add parking in a historic downtown? How can it be both hidden and convenient? Crankshaw: Is there really a need for additional parking? If so, determine the destinations of those who park and locate new parking where it is convenient. “Convenient” places offer a pleasant walking path, a clear view of the destination, and a reasonable-length walk . Parking shouldn’t be created by demolishing existing buildings, as a general rule. Investigate vacant spaces that may be suitable. Many of the best spaces may be behind buildings or in the interior of blocks and will likely cross multiple property lines. What makes a place walkable, besides not having to cross four lanes of busy traffic? Crankshaw: A walkable place provides supportive environments for pedestrians. That is much more than just a safe environment for pedestrians, which is an incredibly minimal threshold. Supportive pedestrian environments provide adequate path widths, buffers from vehicular traffic, visual variety and enjoyment, and shade. They should form a network that takes you places you want to go as directly as possible and with as much choice as possible. Is it possible to overdo historic preservation? Crankshaw: Preservation is ideological and mission-oriented. When there are competing values, it’s not always right. But because it is ideological, it always thinks it is right. In many parts of the United States, the presence (or potential loss) of a town center with thriving businesses is an overriding concern. This is true in smaller cities and towns and in the older suburban communities of large cities. Preservationists need to support that goal even if it means backing off from their traditional fixation on details. How closely should downtown signs be coordinated? Crankshaw: Not at all. Towns should place some limits on size, appropriate to their locality, but business and building owners should be free to express themselves without being “coordinated” by someone else’s aesthetic sensibilities. If a town’s economy supports good businesses, those businesses will be smart enough to advertise with the right kinds of signs. People love the vibrant look of nearly cacophonous signs in historic photographs of downtowns and then want to reject freedom of expression in preserved downtowns. It doesn’t make sense. Are “street trees” an oxymoron? How can they be done right? Crankshaw: Street trees certainly are not an oxymoron in most residential neighborhoods, whose streets were designed with the idea that there would be trees. In many communities we are neglecting the need to maintain and replant trees in neighborhoods to make our streets more enjoyable. In downtowns, street trees are a different matter. Trees have demonstrable value in traditional commercial areas. They screen parking areas, provide shade, shape space for pedestrians, and have other psychological and aesthetic values. Find Henderson's entire interview here and purchase Crankshaw's book here.