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What a Squaauhh! Bettuhh Even Than Tivuhhhton!


One of the things that continually surprises me as a transplant to Rhode Island is that many of the things that I enjoy most about the state are not things that Rhode Islanders themselves are proud of.  In fact, my frequent statements that I like the downtown of Woonsocket, or that you really can't beat the view of Providence from Riverside, or that Pawtucket is just the nicest place have so far mostly met with strange looks.

My favorite response of all time to this type of conversation was the inspiration for the title.  A lady from Little Compton once told me that "I nevuh been tuh Pawtucket.  Why go?  Tivuhton's got such a nice squaauh."

True, it does.  No argument there.

But since we're exploring things that aren't obviously lovely the way that Tiverton is, let's stick to the topic of squares.  I think--I know you'll be shocked--that Cathedral Square is one of the nicest places in Providence.  It's absolutely a highlight for me every time I walk through it.

No, really.  Now, I'll emphasize that the highlight ends for me as soon I have gotten through it, because I'm immediately reminded of why so few people take the detour.  Service Road 7 rears its ugly head on the other side of the Square, and then the only way to walk across is to take one of two ugly options: Washington Street's I-95 bridge or the Broad Street one.  But the square itself is nice.

Where else in Downcity can you be under a canopy of trees that are large enough to cover you?

There would be even more pedestrians here if going up these steps led somewhere besides I-95.
The need for slight renovation of the brick work aside, this is actually a lovely space.

Nowhere to cross, except to detour back to the other streets.  Hmm, what was the point of a pedestrian mall here?
This guy's got it figured out: This is a lovely squaauh, but for cahhhs, not pedestrians.

Where else can you see such a nice view of Westminster Street?

Where else do you have the feeling that you're in a Sicilian Square at the foot of a medieval cathedral?

The topic of pedestrian malls came up at the last Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, with a few members of the committee--most notably Eric Weis of the East Coast Greenway--taking the bold stance that Thayer Street could someday be pedestrianized, like on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont.  The committee's only paid member, David Everett, who works for the mayor's office, grumbled on for several minutes about how awful an idea this was, and how pedestrian malls are "just a 70s thing for small college towns", and that they'll never work in Providence.  Everett motioned out the window to Cathedral Square as his evidence.  It was built in the 70s as part of Mayor Cianci's plan to pedestrianize Westminster Street.  The plan never really caught on.  Not enough pedestrians really used the mall, and soon the city just decided to turn it back over to cars.

You can tell I'm not a fan of David Everett's position--I really think that the sole representative of the mayor's office on the committee should represent the city a little more creatively--but the fact remains that objectively the pedestrian mall did not work on Westminster Street.  So the real question is, why?

Atlantic Cities did a fairly good piece on this, highlighting the worst pedestrian mall failures--Buffalo Place and Kalamazoo Mall--along with the architectural form's greatest achievements--Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market in Boston, Times Square in New York, and Church Street in Burlington, Vermont--and explored what made these places pass or fail.  Faneuil Hall, to me, really sticks out, because the article explains that the space really wasn't successful at all until after the Big Dig connected pedestrians to a larger space.  

We recently visited Burlington Vermont, and shared some of our positive experiences there.  It is true that Burlington is a college town, and that it's pedestrian mall started in the 70s.  But college students aside, what felt really great about Church Street was that after the pedestrian mall ended, there was plenty of town to explore on either side.  Transit stations were located there.  Businesses were on the mall.  There was a reason to be there.

A rainy, rather cold day in Burlington, before the height of the tourist season, but after UVM's students had left.

If Westminster Street were pedestrianized again like in the 1970s, short of intervention to change its connection to other spaces, it would probably fail yet again.  It isn't that there's nothing there to see.  There are lots of nice businesses.  Even the part of the "mall" area that everyone agrees is the most in need of repair, Cathedral Square itself, has a lot of aesthetic upsides.  But on one side of the mall you've got 1-95, and on the other you've got Memorial Boulevard.  There's no reason for people to walk straight through the space, as their means of going from one neighborhood to another, the way one would definitely do up Broadway in Times Square.

As the city explores a Greater Kennedy Plaza revamping, I hope it will keep this in mind.  The Kennedy Plaza plans I've seen all look very nice within the space that is affected by the reconstruction, but there still appears to be a total blindspot in the city's thinking about Memorial Boulevard and how that affects pedestrian and bike traffic.  You can pedestrianize Kennedy Plaza all you want--like Cathedral Square, it's already not that bad to go through on its own--but the spaces around Kennedy Plaza are the problem.

Will we deal with Memorial Boulevard?  Or just ignore its role in Kennedy Plaza's problems?

I can think of a famous space from my own city of Philadelphia, Love Park.  Everyone and their mother has seen the four letters, L-O-V-E, standing two-on-two with the "O' slightly crooked, and Rocky Balboa's Art Museum steps behind it.  It's beautiful in postcards, which is why it's always on them.  But who goes there, who actually lives in Philadelphia?  Nobody.  It's one of the few sections of Center City Philadelphia that is difficult to exist in as a pedestrian, because at some point someone decided that 15th Street and 16th Street should be widened to allow faster car traffic.  No one wants to cross that, even for the postcard moment.  After a stint in the 90s of working really hard to kick skateboarders out of the park--yeah, Philly, that was really the problem there, mm hmm--Philly is only now beginning to think about how to do something with City Hall/Love Park's problems after having to invite some Dutch planners over to point them to the obvious.

What a postcard picture!
How many Americans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  None, you get Dutch people to do it.  Love Park just beyond this point in the photo.

So, could a pedestrian mall work on Thayer?  Thayer Street doesn't have any of the problems that Westminster currently has.  My guess is that if you pedestrianized Thayer above the bus tunnel until where it hits Cushing, that a mall would work perfectly.  It's not just for the 70s.  And last I checked, the East Side is a college town.

A temporary pedestrian mall on Thayer Street:  What if this was everyday?

With some effort--and perhaps a mixed-use pedestrian/bike bridge like the one the East Siders are getting?--there's no reason to think that West End folks wouldn't start appreciating Cathedral Square for the beautiful place it is.  And actually walking through it.

Shahhh, it's a nice squaauh, but who's gonna' go theuhh when theuhh's Tivuhhhton?


  1. Anything that can possible increase walking in Providence is something I'd support. Hopefully that would cut down on people yelling at you from moving cars, which Rhode Islanders seem to be so fond of doing.

    And Thayer st is a strange case. In some ways, it makes sense to pedestrianize it. We could close it right now, with almost no change in the flow of cars through the east side. They'd just drive down Hope instead.

    But Thayer isn't particularly pedestrian UNfriendly either. Driving down Thayer is pretty slow already, and I get the feeling most people doing it are looking for parking. Closing Thayer to traffic might improve the overall feel of the street life, but probably wouldn't have much impact on the walkability of the area.

    As you said, Providence needs to take a long hard look at its overall walkability problem. For a city so amazingly compact, it's a shame that there are so many parts of it that are unfriendly to pedestrians. The freeway, fast-moving service roads, lights that don't change unless you push a button, curb cuts from the huge number of parking lots, orphaned crosswalks. We really have a lot of work to do.

  2. I think you're right, although I'd say Thayer might be good as low-hanging fruit to show what could be done later with worse intersections like Olneyville Square. And even thoughWestminster as a whole isn't bad east of 95, I think that connecting it via-Cathedral Squaauh would be a boon to the West End.

    The biggest point, to me, is debunking this notion that Providence culture is somehow unable to adjust to changes like this. As you'll remember, since you went to Penn, Woodland Walk was a positive addition all through 'University City' and West Philly.