Don’t Blame the Pedestrian Mall

Penn Mall Looking East 1969-1972 | Historic Pittsburgh Archives

Pedestrian spaces can thrive in Pittsburgh

As Allegheny County moves from red to yellow and hopefully to green very soon, people are talking about how to open businesses while keeping customers safe. One idea that BikePGH and others are advocating for is closing some business districts to cars in order to give more space for people to walk, shop, and grab a bite to eat while physically distancing from one another. This is a polarizing idea in a society that has invested in car-culture for the better part of a century. Many are skeptical that streets without cars will attract customers. One local example that opponents are quick to reference regarding why this can’t work is the pedestrian mall that was created in the 1960s in East Liberty as part of a massive urban renewal project —the pedestrian mall that they state with authority, “killed East Liberty.” 

But blaming the “pedestrian mall” aspect of the East Liberty urban renewal program is misremembering the complete history of what happened to East Liberty (and Pittsburgh as a whole). If the URA merely shut down Penn Avenue to cars and nothing else changed and that caused the business district of East Liberty to fail I would concede the point. But that’s not an accurate retelling of history.

East Liberty Mall 1969 | Historic Pittsburgh Archives

As I’ve mentioned previously when the subject of urban renewal has come up, this could be the subject of a PhD dissertation so my post won’t do this topic justice. However, it’s been shown that most of the pedestrian malls of yesterday that failed were all in cities that lost population and thus foot traffic in the years following. Between 1969, the year that the Penn Ave pedestrian mall was put in, and 1986, the year it was removed, Pittsburgh lost more than 150,000 residents. Let that sink in for a moment. 

Beyond citywide population loss, the entire plan was to try to compete with the suburbs by suburbanizing East Liberty and prioritizing cars — spending millions of dollars tearing down of hundreds of buildings and hollowing out the neighborhood in order to make a fast ring road (Penn Circle) and surface parking lots while replacing 1,200 homes with high rises (which weren’t enough to house 1,200 families) — this mass demolition of the urban fabric is what really failed East Liberty. After this plan was implemented the neighborhood lost more 4,500 people between 1969 and 2000 both due to the project and to broader demographic and economic shifts within the City.

The policy of urban renewal was a failure. This program rolled out in cities throughout the country cleaved neighborhoods, destroyed historic buildings, reduced neighborhood density and vibrancy, made neighborhoods more car centric, and left them a shadow of their former selves. Just watch the slideshow to see the destruction that was inflicted on Pittsburgh in the name of urban renewal. Count how many buildings were torn down to make room for parking for  the cars that would pour in from the new highways that also displaced people and prioritized the suburbs over the city. It’s all heartbreaking.

Pedestrian Mall in Charlottesville VA | Visit Charlottesville

Any plan to pedestrianize a street must, of course, pay attention to the details of what businesses along the street need in terms of deliveries and access. Cities throughout the world have figured out answers to these issues and we can easily look for best practices and adapt them to Pittsburgh. But let’s not point to a failed experiment in trying to transform an urban neighborhood to try to compete with suburban malls as to why a pedestrian only street can’t work anywhere else in the City of Pittsburgh. Car-free streets could very well work brilliantly here, just like they do in countless cities around the country and the world. These types of streets draw people to them. They create a wonderful atmosphere and a real sense of place with minimal investment in lighting, street furniture and planters. Moreover, in this environment where people are apprehensive to go back to life as usual, car-free shopping streets will calm anxiety by providing more space for people to walk, shop, and grab a bite.

OpenStreetsPGH in Southside helps us reimagine our streets

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