Water Street's pedestrian mall shouldn't just be revived, it should be permanent
Converting Water Street for pedestrian use should be part of a broader renewal
St. John's Mayor Danny Breen said this past week the downtown pedestrian mall has been a success "beyond anybody's wildest imaginations." Given the strong support to extend it, I have a good feeling most residents agree.
This should come as no surprise. As I wrote back in June, decades of research have found that pedestrianized urban spaces flourish because people like to be around others (without having cars in the way). Residents of St. John's are no different — as this summer proved.
City council has decided to give Water Street back to vehicle traffic on Monday, respecting the original deadline. But instead of just doing it again, planning should begin for next summer's pedestrian mall to be permanent. The change should be seen as part of a broader renewal of downtown.
A permanent conversion of the central section of Water Street would have numerous benefits. Downtown businesses would be able to make investments in more permanent infrastructure for outdoor seating, including to protect customers from wind and rain and to add heat lamps for the colder months.
In addition, council or the Downtown Development Commission could ensure that more awnings are added to downtown buildings to protect pedestrians from the elements and ensure changes are made to make the street and businesses accessible to residents in wheelchairs.
Broaden the space
But council should also be thinking about ways of making downtown a place where people want to go and spend some time — not just to buy things. For example, they could add a fountain in the centre of Water Street, a play area for children, and put out some big chess boards in the summer like at Montreal's Place des Arts.
They could also hold a weekly food market on a weekend evening where the food trucks come down and a musical act provides some entertainment. The relatively empty stretch in front of Atlantic Place could be a good spot for it.
Breen's suggestion of fall and winter markets should also be welcomed to help make the case. There are still people who believe that residents won't go outside when temperatures drop or there's a bit of bad weather, even though people go skating at the Loop in Bannerman Park and snowshoeing through Pippy Park.
The Botanical Garden also puts on a popular lights festival that sees people waiting outside on the cold and windy December evenings at the Marine Institute just to get a seat on the shuttle.
Imagine going downtown on a November or December evening to a Water Street decorated with lights and trees to mark the occasion. There could be wooden stalls set up from businesses and local craftspeople selling hot chocolate, warm food, and locally made crafts that would make good presents. Outdoor seating could be draped with locally made quilts for people to keep cozy and warm.
When I visited Copenhagen last year, there were numerous Christmas markets throughout the city's urban centre. In the colder months, cafés and restaurants in the Nordic countries don't bring everything inside — they adapt by putting blankets on the outdoor chairs.
Converting Water Street for pedestrian use should be part of a broader renewal of the downtown by the city and provincial governments after decades of it being ignored in favour of the latest subdivision or big-box development.
Walkability works with a diversified economy
Premier Andrew Furey came to office promising a new vision and a diversified economy with a greater focus on technology and the arts, but workers in those industries tend to have a preference for walkable urban environments that don't require owning a car.
That will require denser development, which council has already signalled its support for, and more investment in transit, cycling, and walkability. Recent research out of Memorial University found that making St. John's more walkable would have significant economic and health benefits.
In pursuit of the premier's vision and a better downtown, planning should begin on a central downtown library to serve as a community hub.
In addition to lending books, it should be designed to as a place where people from all walks of life can go to work, study, and spend their time.
A downtown library could have a café with affordable local food and a children's area with toys and games. It could also host events with authors and artists, and offer classes in arts and technology for young and old alike.
We could also take a lesson from Halifax, which completed a new library in 2014 with a media and recording studio. It also hired a social worker to provide community support. To promote local film culture, the library could also have a two-screen arthouse cinema like in Auckland to show independent films and hold local events like MUN's Cinema Series and the Women's Film Festival.
For decades, investment in other parts of the city have taken people and economic activity away from the city's downtown. It's time to reverse that trend.
The focus should be on quality of life
Ultimately, there needs to be a greater focus on improving quality of life — not just what's best for business. Businesses have a lot of sway over council decisions, and complaints from businesses outside Water Street that the pedestrian mall was taking away customers contributed to the decision not to extend it.
But if we're to build a better city for all residents, we can't keep giving into business interests at the expense of residents — whether it's in the latest housing development, downtown hotel or pedestrian-oriented improvements.
If businesses want more people to visit Duckworth Street, Churchill Square or other parts of the city, they should demand council expand the pedestrian initiatives that are popular with residents, not dismantle them. After recent public consultations, Churchill Square could be the next area of focus.
The province is at a decisive moment, and that has implications for St. John's. With the oil wealth drying up, we must start thinking about what comes next — and that means not just what industries to grow, but also how we live in the future.