Marielle BrownBy Marielle Brown, AICP

Marielle is a member of the Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning Manager at Trailnet, where she manages and contributes to all aspects of the planning process, from outreach to route prioritization. Marielle has a Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Portland State University. Prior to pursuing her Master’s, Marielle gained first-hand experience with multi-modal transportation planning around the world by teaching English in Hiroshima, Paris, and Seoul.

For thousands of years, cities have been designed for people walking, children playing, neighbors gathering, and local businesses selling their wares. As new ways of getting around were created, humans scrambled to integrate this technology into the tradition of making communities built for walking. Over the last century, our cities have been taking part in a large experiment to design communities for cars, a technology that allows us to go much faster and take up more space.

Carts pulled by humans, horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and even bicycles were all once disruptive technologies that changed the way we traveled and the way we designed cities. However, none of these new ways to travel were fast enough to upset the walking pace of cities. Public streets were still easy and safe places for people to play with their children, talk with their neighbors, and cross the street where it was convenient.

As cars started to become more common, our communities searched for ways to accommodate these new machines that allowed us to travel much faster than our streets had ever been designed for. We welcomed cars by paving our streets, making them wider, painting lanes on streets, and designating parking spaces.

We also had to design our communities and our behavior around the new technology. As people drove faster on our wider, smoother streets, children were taught not to play in the street, people walking across the street at their convenience were derided as “jays” or country bumpkins, and laws were passed to make sure people walking stayed out of the way of people driving.

As our streets became places to travel through, rather than places to be, the local businesses that relied on foot traffic had to relocate to a place where their customers could find a parking spot. Then the businesses needed to build signs large enough for their customers to see from a fast moving car. Next the roads had to be expanded even more to make room for the cars that customers arrived in, as a street that comfortably fits thousands of people will not fit an equal number of cars as easily.

All of these changes not only increased costs for business owners, they also made our streets feel designed for driving rather than walking. The new designs made it more inviting to drive to work, to shop in large stores on the outskirts of town, and to stay inside, away from the traffic noise and pollution. Our long tradition of building cities as places where people love to be was transformed into a new science of building places where cars could travel quickly. The freeways that connect our metropolitan regions show our successes- they are fast and pleasant for people and freight traveling between cities.

However, inside of our cities, creating streets where people love to walk and people can drive quickly has not been as successful. Our experiments have resulted in cities full of larger, faster streets that are dangerous and unpleasant for people walking or driving. Our attempts to find a compromise between designing streets for driving and for walking has hit a truth that we cannot design around–as humans we do not feel comfortable and safe in a space with large things traveling at 30 miles per hour or more.

Retrofitting our existing streets to slow the speed of cars while creating more space for people and for greenery is a relatively easy way for us to return to a city of streets where people love to be. We can help people driving to follow the speed limit through “traffic calming,” or street design that is more comfortable at slower speeds. This can include extending the curb at intersections, reducing or narrowing traffic lanes, or adding gentle speed humps on streets. The appropriate design on the appropriate street can help us return to city streets that are built for walking, playing, and catching up with our neighbors.

Over the past month, the Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association has been working with the Healthy Eating Active Living Partnership, the City of St. Louis Department of Health, and Trailnet  to bring pop-up traffic calming demonstrations to several neighborhoods in the city as part of the Plan4Health grant.

The demonstrations in Dutchtown, the Ville, and Carondelet have helped residents reimagine the streets as places where safety and community come before speed. Overwhelmingly the people living, walking, bicycling, and even driving on these streets have told us they look great and feel safer.
On November 10th, we will have our final demonstration in the the JeffVanderLou Neighborhood. Please stop by the corner of Sheridan and Garrison, better known as Tillie’s Corner, from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm to see how we can create joyful streets that prioritize our communities’ values.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.