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Panelists on the final day of the International Downtown Association‘s 64th annual conference and trade show on Friday highlighted projects in three cities that turned downtown transportation infrastructure into new public spaces and opportunities for community engagement.
The conference was co-hosted by Centro San Antonio, the city’s nonprofit downtown advocacy group.
Trent Lethco, a leading transport consultant from the New York City-based firm Arup, who moderated the panel at the Marriott Rivercenter Hotel, said building highways and roads in the past had mainly been about basic function: transporting people.
But in many cases, Lethco said, freeways and roads have become barriers – literally and figuratively – to linking neighborhoods and developing areas more friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and mass transit.
“I suspect most of us would like our downtown highways to go away or be different, but I also suspect most of us also secretly enjoy using them,” Lethco added.
Lethco said this is where planners, designers, residents, business owners, and policymakers all should think about the downtown area’s context.
Consider, for example, an area where a riverfront freeway above parking lots could be enhanced with a park, he said. In some cases, the better bet would be do away with that freeway entirely, he suggested.
“When highways are made, they can be something different and be better neighbors in our local communities,” Lethco said.
Pierre Sainte-Marie, an infrastructure and road projects manager for the City of Montreal, talked about how his city razed part of the elevated Bonaventure Expressway and replaced it with two boulevards with a series of open green spaces between them.
The Bonaventure once was a north-south link into downtown, but local officials a few years ago decided the immediate area could be better served without that part of the freeway.
“People felt downtown should be a destination, not a crossing point,” Sainte-Marie said.
The project, completed late last summer, involved the removal of 47,000 tons of concrete.
In place of a raised freeway, which local officials said compounded urban heat-island conditions, there are now 300 trees and several planting beds, a playground, a dog park, public art, and places for recreation, exercise and picnicking.
The project widened and landscaped sidewalks, added bike lanes to side streets, and provided more space to mass transit. Six acres of park now line these two new boulevards.
Residential and commercial redevelopment, too, have increased around the new parks.
“It’s now like a central axis for the city,” Sainte-Marie said.
In a different approach, Halifax, Nova Scotia, turned two downtown roads into “shared streetscapes.”
The unique project in Atlantic Canada revamped Argyle Street and nearby Grafton Street into curbless, open public spaces that emphasize pedestrian safety, enjoyment and engagement, said Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission.
The five-month effort turned the two traditional streets and sidewalks into somewhat seamless spaces with widened “pedestrian zones” flanking flexible “shared zones” where pedestrians and vehicles of all manner coexist as they traverse tens of thousands of newly laid pavers — patterned as argyles, in the case of Argyle Street.
Weather-related runoff is instead routed into a central drain zone along the length of the shared streetscapes.
The project strengthened connections between major destinations in and around Halifax’s entertainment district for residents, businesses, and tourists.
The new shared streetscapes opened with a public celebration in November. Grafton and Argyle streets are now the scene of community events, conferences, and pedestrian-friendly activities.
The design has received awards, including the People’s Choice award for Best Urban Street Transformation, in an annual contest held by Streetsblog, and a Downtown Achievement Award from the International Downtown Association.
MacKinnon said the shared streetscape concept was born of the desires of business owners, residents, and visitors who worked or lived in or frequented the area.
It took years for community members and different city government administrations to finally decide what type of revitalization project would be benefit everyone.
“The vision came from the community – the businesses themselves – and it’s what the public wanted,” MacKinnon added.
Also, Jordan Polon, Hartford (Connecticut) Business Improvement District executive director, talked about the way her group tries to make downtown construction projects a tad less stressful for those caught up in the chaos of detours and closures.
Polon said nobody likes the disruption that comes with downtown construction work. But she and associates, while walking past a local project one day, had an idea to lighten the public’s mood with humorous, attention-grabbing signs.
When the signs first popped up around downtown Hartford construction sites, in 2014, passers-by took photos and posted them on social media. The district’s social media handlers took notice and shared some of the more enthusiastic responses.
Signs with lines such as “We like big trucks and we cannot lie” could be seen near more familiar construction site caution signs.
Other signs included:
- “I got 99 problems but a ditch ain’t one”
- “Pardon our appearance while we become more awesome.”
In addition to these slogans, the signs reminded people of specific closures and detours.
Polon said the idea of this project was to make people aware of the construction and to empathize with their frustration about it. Many residents and merchants liked the signs.
“Construction is disruptive but it’s progress,” Polon said, “and I think people forget that when you are trapped or have a massive cloud of dust overcoming you, when we do one of these massive projects, we’re moving the city forward.”
Lethco said these examples are proof that engaging concepts and communicating with the community can help a downtown sector derive greater benefit from its transportation infrastructure.
“Good coalition-building and high-quality design can lead to great results,” he added.