The following essay was originally published on Heliopolis, a local news source for the Shreveport, LA area. In it, Strong Towns member Tim Wright walks readers through his daily commute on foot and discusses how the street and building design in Shreveport's downtown impacts economic success and pedestrian safety. We hope it serves as inspiration for strong citizens across the continent to think critically about their own downtowns and perhaps even write a similar exploratory essay to help their neighbors learn about the impacts of urban design on their communities. If you do write a piece like this, please share it with us.
Human awareness is a curious thing; we can be close in proximity to one another or face a familiar set of circumstances, yet inhabit a completely different world.
When August 2015 rolled around, my world felt normal. Summer’s air of freedom and travel was once again giving way to the lingering Texas heat, and life’s rhythm was once again pulling me eastward. Yet this time I was bypassing my East Texas school, moving beyond the smooth pavement into a different world.
The differences in this new world were significant. I moved from a bustling, sprawling, Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to a slower, nonetheless sprawling midsize city. From the ritzy, faux-southwestern Dallas to deep in The South. From a suburban and easily disconnected living to a more interdependent downtown, in Shreveport, LA.
Yet the most substantial change in my world was the subtle move of a few dozen feet towards the outside of the road. This move put me in the world of the pedestrian.
The daily walk from my apartment to the American Tower in Shreveport brings me up and across Market Street. It’s not a walk on which to peruse the digital world. The Regions Tower garage, Barksdale Credit Union, and a pair of alleys present me with drivers ready to pounce on the gas pedal in order to successfully merge into the swiftly moving traffic. I also have to be wary of cars turning left into me at several locations.
The presence of quickly-moving cars doesn't surprise me: the absence of visual noise makes it feel natural to drive faster than the 25 MPH speed limit. Few on-street parking spots and the lack of opposing traffic close-by makes a driver feel safer and therefore drive faster. Vacant storefronts, visually dull buildings, and the lack of trees also contribute to the high-speed nature of Market Street.
So while Market Street helps to wake me up in the morning, it is not a street conducive to pedestrian activity apart from a walk to or from work. Contrast this to Texas Street; which is lined with businesses, trees, and containing a minimal amount of vehicular entrances from alleys, garages, or parking lots. On which street would you rather walk?
Since my arrival in Shreveport, much of the talk around downtown has revolved around several vacant buildings being put back to use. These developments are exciting. However, it makes me wonder:
- How will these developments contribute to the unique character of downtown?
- How will they make their block better and encourage pedestrian activity?
Let's explore three buildings that I think deserve your attention because of their impact on the pedestrian world.
First, let’s examine Artspace (710 Texas Street), my introduction to Shreveport’s arts and music culture. Several features deserve our attention: on-street parking and parking meters provide a buffer of safety from the street; the awning provides a respite from the summer heat; the interesting colors and shapes of the entrances are pleasing to the eye. This well-lit building front should be a model for other buildings to follow (the new lofts are taking Artspace’s cue).
Now let’s head over to Milam Street to visit the Selber Brothers building (601 Milam Street). Construction has begun as a new tech company, Venyu Solutions, is moving in and promises seventy jobs within the next three years. As it currently stands, the bricked-over façade detracts from the building’s otherwise attractive location on the quiet, tree-canopied Milam Street. As this building is remodeled, we must hope a more utilitarian approach is not taken by the developer so that the historic structure can once again be a vital part of it’s block.
Finally, let’s return to Market Street where the Petroleum Building (619 Market Street) has recently gone on the market. It’s being advertised for ground level retail and offices on the upper floors, a mixed use building that provides great versatility for a city.
While the building has this versatility and (in my opinion) a visually pleasing front, my gut says this building may be a victim of its location. Can you think of any other destinations close by? Is walking along Market Street pleasurable to you?
In engineering school, I had an important principle drilled into me. Every decision has trade-offs, positive and negative. In order to make the right decision, you have to act according to what you value most in each situation.
Similarly, each street will be designed for a particular purpose. A street designed simply to move cars efficiently will turn out like Market Street. Conversely, a street designed to provide a vibrant street life will feel more like Texas or Milam Street.
So as downtown grows and evolves, Shreveport will continue to face tough decisions. Will it respond to growth with more parking and wider streets to reduce car congestion? If so, how will this affect the vibrancy of downtown? Or will it instead focus on improvements to transit service and the pedestrian world? If so, will it be in an orderly way which enable less trips to be taken by car?
As each structure must do its part to create street vitality, so each of us must do our part to create vitality in our city center.
The next time you make it downtown, will you try walking in a new place that you haven’t before? It could make a world of difference.