Bright Idea: Reinventing “La Rambla”

 Inspiration: "La Rambla" is a 0.75-mile long, tree-lined pedestrian mall in Barcelona, Spain.  Originally a sewage-filled stream bed, the street's iconic trees were first added in 1703.  Two narrow service roads flank (but never cross) a central pedestrian zone. (Photo source: MyTravelPhotos.net)

Inspiration: “La Rambla” is a 0.75-mile long, tree-lined pedestrian mall in Barcelona, Spain. Originally a sewage-filled stream bed, the street’s iconic trees were first added in 1703. (Photo source: MyTravelPhotos.net)

What urban street design technique can provide benefits in terms of traffic calming, economic development, stormwater management, parking, heat island effect, and aesthetics? The answer: “Ramblas.”

Challenged with retrofitting a wide boulevard in a late-19th century railroad town in order to increase pedestrian activity (and hopefully economic vitality), and inspired by “La Rambla” in Barcelona, Moule & Polyzoides transformed Lancaster Boulevard in Lancaster, California into a vibrant commercial corridor. By removing the center turning lane, decreasing the road to one lane in each direction, they were able to create a wide, tree-filled, multi-purpose space in the center and restore some of the street’s downtown character. Some blocks accommodate angled parking in the center area while others are given over completely to pedestrians in the form of attractive parks, public gathering spaces, and outdoor event venue spaces. Some of the other benefits include shortened crosswalks, slower vehicular speeds, and the creation of a cooler outdoor space that could also be built to manage and recycle stormwater.

Approximately $11.5 million was spent on the retrofit of nine blocks of Lancaster Boulevard and the project has already attracted more than $300 million in private investment. The city has also benefited in terms of new business development, new job creation, and overall decrease in traffic collisions (full list of benefits). Similar to the immense private reinvestment seen in the neighborhoods around the High Line Park in New York, the take away (for me) is that businesses want to be where people are (and people want to be where other people are). The impersonal and isolating environments created by building excessively wide streets to accommodate cars (and thereby reducing pedestrian accessibility and safety) have damaged our cities socially and economically.

Lancaster Boulevard has been transformed into a multi-purpose, pedestrian-friendly space. Source: Moule & Polyzoides

Lancaster Boulevard has been transformed into a multi-purpose, pedestrian-friendly space. Source: Moule & Polyzoides

Pedestrian-only shopping streets (POSS) such as those in Ithaca, New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Cologne, Germany can re-enliven traditional car-centric commercial streets by redistributing parking and traffic patterns and focusing on creating a unique and enjoyable pedestrian experience. However, the beauty of the Ramblas concept is the combination of increasing pedestrian activity, on-street parking, and green space, while also maintaining the street’s original function as a vehicular thoroughfare.

Pedestrian-only Shopping Street in Cologne, Germany. Used with permission by author.

Pedestrian-only Shopping Street in Cologne, Germany. Used with permission by author.

Unique complete streets applications such as “ramblas” can help bring eyes and feet back to the street… but it has to be the right street. Although some applications, such as corner bumpouts, will provide stormwater management, traffic calming, and pedestrian safety benefits (if designed correctly), they aren’t going to increase the economic vitality of a commercial corridor by themselves. The rambla technique would work best with a continuous row of storefronts and active street facades on both sides of the street. This can provide the critical amount of pedestrian and economic activity and visual interest to keep a place “activated.”

Unfortunately, I can’t picture a “rambla” technique benefiting a road like Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard (a road plagued by economic and safety concerns). Very little commercial activity directly abuts the Boulevard, and where it does, the two sides are so far apart (separated by twelve lanes of traffic and seas of parking) that a central pedestrian plaza would do little to increase safe pedestrian access or gathering areas for either side of the corridor. But perhaps Spring Garden Street could benefit from a rambla…

Spring Garden Street

Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia

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