ITHACA, N.Y.—Years ago, Dr. Stephan Schmidt—an associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University—discussed the transferability of European urban intervention practices to American cities with his students in their Green Cities class. That discussion, which centered on the viability of pedestrian malls in the United States, became the genesis of a study that would later appear in the Journal of Urbanism

The study, titled “The rise and fall of the American pedestrian mall,” examined the relationship between the overall success of pedestrian zones and a variety of geographic, demographic and economic factors. It considered the importance of outdoor public spaces like shared streets (pandemic-induced closures of frequently-trafficked streets) and pedestrianized corridors. Contributors sought to better understand why certain pedestrian malls—desirable pedestrian environments that city planners and public officials established across the United States throughout the 1960s and ‘70s—have continued to thrive. 

Cornell University students Samantha Matsuke, a Masters candidate, and Wenzheng Li, who is pursuing his PhD, co-authored the study. Dr. Schmidt and his colleagues analyzed 125 pedestrian malls from the previous generation of vehicle-restricted street intervention to find out why less than half of these spaces are still in existence today. 

“Many downtowns and central business districts now have more full-time residents than they did in decades past, a density boost that bodes well for this new wave of shared streets,” Dr. Schmidt wrote in Bloomberg CityLab. “Officials must weigh many factors as they bring their urban centers back to ‘normal,’ but they should remember that, for many, normal means experiencing the city via a car-free public space.” 

The Commons is a “right-size mall”

The Ithaca Commons—the City’s main commercial hub—is known for its Bernie Milton Pavillion, fawn-brick expanse, wide-windowed storefronts, lush planters, annual festivals, and, most of all, the people who breathe life into it. 

Even though the City of Ithaca and Sasaki Associates demolished and reconstructed the Commons from 2013 to 2015, this pedestrian mall has served the Ithaca community for decades.  The reconstruction, though controversial and lengthy, revitalized the Commons into the desirable pedestrian environment that it is today. Developers added lamp posts, tables, benches as well as a playground and a walkable pathway with ample space for foot traffic. 

Dr. Schmidt said that Downtown Ithaca meets some of his team’s criteria for a successful pedestrian mall. 

“Ithaca has a right-size mall,” he said, adding that “Downtown Ithaca used to have a lot of shopping anchors… so the shopping draw certainly isn’t there, at least proportionally, as it used to be.” 

The focus of the Cornell University study was limited to whether or not pedestrian malls across the United States have survived into the present-day. Despite this, it identified a number of factors that contributed to the survivability of pedestrian zones. For instance, having a large, youthful population decreased the risk of “pedestrian mall closure.” Ithaca is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, which have a combined student enrollment of over 28,000. 

“There’s a number of malls that [are] in places that you would not predict—so in colder, rainier places—that have been able to sort of thrive [and] go against the flow,” Dr. Schmidt said. “The Commons is one of the surviving pedestrian malls that we were trying to model.” 

What makes or breaks a pedestrian mall? 

In their study, contributors identified four characteristics that can be attributed to successful pedestrianization. 

They determined that having a higher median age increased the likelihood that cities’ pedestrian malls would shut down; consistent foot traffic and high population density are essential to the survival of pedestrian malls; cities that are more spread out struggle to support thriving urban centers; and lengthier pedestrian malls can create a sense of desolation, which, in turn, discourages foot traffic. 

According to Dr. Schmidt and his colleagues, creating a sense of enclosure or containment can enhance the pedestrian experience. Programmed activities like Ithaca’s Apple Fest can foster the long-term success of the City’s pedestrian mall, and plentiful lighting—in and around pedestrian zones—tends to make people feel more secure. 

Shared Streets

Ithacans have been able to experience the City’s pedestrianized urban center since even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

In June 2020, city officials responded swiftly to the needs of local businesses located along Restaurant Row when they opened the Aurora Streeteatery, closing off the 100 block of N. Aurora Street to vehicular traffic. The Streatery, which reopened in April 2021 after being temporarily closed for the winter, expanded restaurants’ outdoor seating in an effort to weather the effects of pandemic-induced economic fallout. 

The City of Ithaca and over 150 local governments across the country launched shared street initiatives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although many of these programs started out as temporary solutions to the crisis, a number of city officials have been looking to make them more permanent. 

“Closing Restaurant Row to expand outdoor dining during the warmer months benefits our community in multiple ways,” Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, told the Ithaca Voice

It should be noted, however, that shared or open streets like the Aurora Streeteatery are different from pedestrian malls, which include places like the Ithaca Commons.  

The aforementioned design interventions highlighted by the study will allow city officials to enrich the vitality of downtowns across the country, and the influencing factors that contributors outlined in their study will be conducive to a deeper communal understanding of what makes or breaks pedestrian malls. 

To access the Cornell University study or read its abstract, please visit Taylor & Francis Online.

James Baratta

James Baratta is a New York-based journalist and writer. He is a graduate of Ithaca College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. His work has appeared in POLITICO, Truthout and Common Dreams....