Pedestrian Zoning Helps Set Cities Apart

Pedestrian-zone zoning is as the next logical step in Chicago’s evolution as a truly livable, global city. Cities are the world’s main economic, cultural and intellectual centers and will only continue to grow in importance, even more so in the “developing” world. Yet urban population growth, as well as demographic shifts, is putting pressure on housing and transportation systems. To optimize how older, industrial cities are redeveloped, local governments face difficult choices touching on a variety of issues, from how to alter land use patterns, to how to raise substantial funds for infrastructure improvements, to ways to encourage active participation in decision-making by residents, businesses, and visitors.  The Burnham plan of 1901 laid down a street grid for Chicago that allowed the efficient movement of goods and people across and through Chicago. Today, Chicago is committed to improving how its residents and visitors get around town by developing complete streets, bike lanes and bus rapid transit. Pedestrian zones could be nestled into the city without significant disruption to the transportation network and make the city more livable and sustainable.

In many European towns a pedestrian zone is an indispensable thread in the urban fabric. Often in cities such as Freiburg or Bilbao, these zones represent an older section of town, around which newer areas have been built. In other places, like Zagreb or Copenhagen, areas that formerly allowed vehicular traffic have been re-configured to cater primarily to pedestrian traffic. These areas essentially mimic a small village and its pace of life and commerce.  For U.S. cities, the benefits of pedestrian zones include:

  1. Savings from less spent on costly infrastructure such as roads and related utilities that require maintenance. Pedestrian-only zones dedicate far less space to vehicles and lead to closer-built buildings which provide more land for development over which to spread infrastructure costs.
  2. Improved security for business and residents alike as one of the best deterrents to crime is “eyes on the street.” Pedestrian-only zones put more individuals on the street and in public spaces, which can be more easily monitored.
  3. A better way to manage changing demographics. Pedestrian-only zones could support an “aging in place” model, rather than establishing segregated housing options for seniors, that could help seniors participate in the local economy and civic life by placing options within walking distance.

In the United States, local government exerts tremendous influence over the health of a city through zoning. Zoning dictates building characteristics, such as permitted uses, density and construction style, and how much of a lot is landscaped, dedicated to public use, or set aside for parking, among other requirements.  One zoning practice that has yet to take root in most U.S. cities is a pedestrian-only zone, which typically also includes concessions for first responders and local businesses. Pedestrian zones orient and prioritize buildings and the spaces between them to increase and enhance human interaction. The simplest example of a pedestrian-only zone is a plaza or square, in which individuals can traverse the segmented space in infinite pathways, with many opportunities to stop, be it for a photo, a chat or make a purchase.

The change in U.S. land use planning that pedestrian-zone zoning demands will require a commitment to metrics, particularly around the consumer experience, which in the U.S. remains grounded in vehicular access to shopping. Potential areas within Chicago, or other cities, where pedestrian-zone zoning could excel include the following:

  1. “Eds and meds” as anchor institutions because they have a built-in 24-hour population that seeks convenience.
  2. Downtown “super blocks” that can provide numerous households with disposable income to support a variety of businesses.
  3. Neighborhoods that might opt-in to be re-designed into a pedestrian-only zone.

Cities across the globe, especially those with an industrial past like Chicago, are striving to differentiate themselves in order to attract and retain investment and human capital. Pedestrian zones set cities apart from their peers, guaranteeing citizens a healthy economy and good quality of life.

Mijo Vodopic, Program Officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is a Fall 2013 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.