Where Transportation and Historic Preservation Meet: Downtown Streets (Part One)

Notes from the Vermont Historic Preservation & Downtown Conference and accompanying thoughts.

PART ONE: Opening Session and Session One

Opening Session

The Vermont Historic Preservation & Downtown Conference in Poultney, VT began in the most welcoming of manners: after registration check-in amongst coffee, breakfast bites, displays, and friendly faces, attendees wandered across the Green Mountain College campus to historic Ackley Hall for the opening session. As everyone filtered in, a slideshow of images from what seemed like every town in Vermont played with the songs “Small Town” by John Mellencamp and “Downtown” by Petula Clark. I am easily caught up in such songs, but it seemed as if the songs and images brought smiles to everyone’s faces and put everyone in a good mood. The songs were the perfect addition. Everyone could feel the Vermont hometown pride.

Tripp Muldrow of Arnett Muldrow & Associates, an urban planning firm based in Greenville, South Carolina, was the keynote speaker. Muldrow started by saying that Vermont’s downtowns are not quaint relics or museums; they function and remain relevant. He addressed seven ways in which Vermont downtowns are imporant – why they work, essentially. They work because they serve as (1) a gathering place, (2) a cultural hub, (3) commerce center, (4) an economic incubator, (5) center of fiscal activity, (6) a residential alternative, and (7) a visitor attraction. Muldrow asked what makes the brand of Vermont, what makes the downtown; these successes have not happened by accident and a lot is due to grassroots economic development.

Due to the late start (I don’t think I know any preservationists who operate on schedule), Muldrow seemed to shorten his talk. I would have liked to have heard the complete version, as this left me feeling underwhelmed. (But, really, who can follow up Mellencamp and Petula Clark, I ask.) However, the message was received: good job, Vermont – relevant, active villages and downtowns take effort and good planning and thoughtful connections.

Session One

There were three tracks from which to choose: Historic, Downtown Revitalization, or Streets as Places. I chose Streets as Places, as it sounded like something different than usual conference sessions. The first session titled, “Why are Streets Important?” was led by speakers Ethan Kent and Phil Myrick of Project for Public Spaces; Michael Oman from Oman Analytics; and Lucy Gibson from Smart Mobility. The presentations by the speakers covered a lot of ground, from placemaking to traffic engineering to sidewalk zones, yet all of the topics seemed to naturally fit together in a fascinating discussion.

Project for Public Spaces (which has recently partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in order to enrich towns through placemaking) began with a discussion of placemaking. What is placemaking? How do you make a place a destination? What can you consider a place? What makes a place successful? In brief, placemaking involves focusing on place — it is a process and a philosophy — and it allows people to consider their everyday surroundings with fresh eyes. It is a process that involves the community and fosters growth/renewal of a place by allowing networks of people and interactions to create thriving neighborhoods. This is accomplished through tools that improve place – such as the Power of 10; meaning, a neighborhood is diverse enough that there are 10 spots (fountain, park,  store, coffee shop,library, post office, bus stop, laundromat, etc.) in that general area for people to visit /10 things to do. And then the larger town has 10 neighborhoods or sections as well and the region has 10 towns with 10 places with 10 things to do, etc. – layers of the Power of 10 (though keep in mind that 10 is an arbitrary number).

Now that we have places, let’s get back to streets. Delving beyond the discussion of downtowns and villages, Project for Public Spaces considers streets and human scale key to placemaking.  Since streets are used for transportation, transportation can be an obstacle to placemaking. If planners spend all of their time planning for cars and traffic, they will only get cars and traffic; however, if they plan for people and places, they will get people and places – which is critical to healthy downtowns and villages.  Now, streets shape transportation; so, if streets are safe and pedestrian and community friendly, then places grow. Sprawl is minimized, health improves, quality of life improves. How do streets become places? By bringing in mental speed bumps and life on the streets. Drivers will behave better when it appears to be a busier, livelier area.

Streets are busier and become places by linking; it is more than streetscaping with benches and plants and light posts. Thoughtful planning and giving people reasons to sit and linger or pass by a park are critical. Granted, benches, plants and light posts will help guide pedestrians and allow them to sit at a bus stop or next to the ice cream parlor, but everything has to serve a purpose.  Overall, PPS discusses transforming existing places into destinations for everyday living, errands and entertainment. Of course, this relates to thriving downtowns and local economies and good places to live.

After Project for Public Spaces, Lucy Gibson addressed the problem of where link & place collide. In other words, state highways often run through small village centers. State highway design standards are often out of date and do not correlate to the ideas of placemaking and pedestrian friendly streets. A street’s performance is measured by traffic flow and width and safety statistics; there isn’t much that can be altered from guidelines. Furthermore, at least in Vermont, areas that are urban aren’t rated as urban by guidelines due to low population count. In terms of making streets safe, speed is perhaps the biggest obstacle; Gibson pointed out that a vehicle traveling at 40mph has an 85% chance of killing a pedestrian if hit. Overall, Gibson discussed the need to consider the purpose of roads and streets – they are not only for vehicles and perhaps standards should be reconsidered.

Michael Oman discussed the role of parking and how it relates to streets and places. As Oman said, parking is a dead activity and it can be a black hole in the middle of an important area. Numbers for parking needs are often based on suburban shopping malls, not downtowns, so those numbers should be ignored. Instead, use the magic number of 85; 85% is the parking capacity you want and need for downtown. And, there are many options for parking beyond asphalt parking lots. Most importantly, the pedestrian should be the center. Parking serves to convert the driver into a pedestrian who is shopping, running errands, etc. Pedestrians must be able to cross the street; their network must work or else there will be no successful place. An effective way to do this is to make vehicles feel as though they are entering the pedestrian realm; do not make pedestrians feel unsafe as if they are entering a vehicle only realm. Varying textures, raised streets, variations on sidewalk curbs, many crosswalks, traffic lights, etc. are effective tools for planners and engineers to consider.

Additionally, Oman discussed how sidewalks are different in downtown areas: they are often much large, 18′ wide (some width of that is likely within the highway right-of-way). There are four zones on a sidewalk: frontage zone (in front of stores where they can place signs, etc), thoroughfare (where pedestrians walk), furnishings zone (street lamps, benches — not to interfere with thoroughfare), and the edge zone (beyond furnishings, curbs). These can be effectively used in placemaking. Of course, not every downtown has existing large sidewalks, but sidewalks can be increased in size and similar principles applied.

Summary of Session One: That was a lot of information, indeed. But the overall message of rethinking transportation networks as more than just meant for vehicles is fascinating. And the philosophy and practice of critiquing an area and helping it to function more effectively for its residents makes so much sense. Much of this involves streets, thus transportation. People need to be able to get to and from places, but also to move within those places, thus the need for more inviting streets with different standards than current standards. People must have a reason to use the transportation network, hence the importance of placemaking. Because the two are so intertwined, once cannot be independent of the other.

I loved the entire session; it reminded me just how happy I am to work with transportation and historic preservation. After all, our entire history is connected to travel of some form or another, whether it be people or resources. Transportation is part of our heritage. Together, transportation and preservation can do so much for quality of life.

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Did you attend this session or another? If you have thoughts on any, please share.

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Look for Part Two (of Two) next week! It will include Session Two, Session Three, and the Evening Reception.
Update: Read Part Two here.