Leaving our usual stomping grounds and visiting excellent places is crucial. Such places reveal new ideas for how we could improve the environment in which we live.
One such place is the Pearl Street Mall, located in Boulder, a college town in the heart of Colorado. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Mall and it’s one of my favorite places in the US. Let’s take a stroll down to the Mall and see what it can show us…
We start by walking through the University Hill neighborhood, with its student-oriented 13th Street commercial area…
We turn onto the arterial Broadway Street which cuts through town…
Following Broadway downhill, we enter the downtown area, past several blocks dominated by 1980s office buildings and parking lots…
Suddenly, we turn the corner and there it is: The Pearl Street Mall…
How different this place feels compared to the places we just passed through. The Pearl Street Mall environment is richer and more detailed, the pace is more casual and relaxed. It feels like we have finally arrived at a destination, at a real “place”, as opposed to a non-place to hurry through, like we did on Broadway. Pay close attention: you might notice yourself feeling contented and physically relaxed. How rare it is to feel this way!
We head east through the Mall. People are slowly walking along, others are sitting having a quiet conversation with a friend, children run around freely from one side of the street to the other. We make our way past beds of yellow and red tulips, hot dog street vendors, local stores, and a comforting canopy of trees above us.
If we keep coming back, we’ll see folk musicians, children climbing the giant bronze beaver, couples holding hands. Perhaps we’ll, as I often have, bring a book and find a place to read quietly.
Through sunshine and snow, day and night, the Mall is constantly alive with people. It’s the center of town but more importantly it’s the heart of the community.
So, why is the Pearl Street Mall so popular? Simply, it’s a place that satisfies one of the most basic human needs: To be around other people, to see and be seen. Look at the photos above and you’ll see people happily sitting, walking, eating, socializing, and playing – and that’s about it! Life becomes simple and pleasant when space is there to enjoy the simple things around other people, whether they are familiar or new faces.
But the value of places like the Pearl Street Mall goes much deeper. In the one book I keep at my bedside – A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al – Alexander writes “Without common land no social system can survive”. Not only is common land – pedestrian malls, squares, and so on – greatly enjoyable to dwell in, it also helps stitch together the very social fabric that keeps society healthy.
Here are some of the essential components that common land contributes to society:
- Trust and cooperation: When people repeatedly see one another, they are more likely to trust each other and to contribute to each others’ lives.
- Safety: The more people who linger in public spaces the more people are watching out for each other. Increased people presence means increased safety.
- A healthier economy: The more time people spend somewhere and the more slowly they move, the more they notice and frequent local businesses. On the Pearl Street Mall, I interviewed 32 businesses and all but one (very strange case, that one) were glad to be located on the Mall.
- And most importantly: Happiness!
In most US towns and cities, and in many places around the world, common land is missing. Instead we see scenes like this:
Now that we’ve visited the Pearl Street Mall, doesn’t it seem more obvious that the above street is fundamentally lacking?
This kind of street is all that most people get: A place to pass through. There’s no end to a journey, no sense of having arrived anywhere, just endless movement without resolution. No wonder people so swiftly seek refuge indoors. Unconsciously we all feel strong aversion to automobile-centric streets and we tend to find alternative places to be, where possible.
A lack of social spaces is crippling most American, and many other, communities. Social dysfunction – homelessness, mental illness, crime, and so on – is directly linked to the lack of social space where people would otherwise form self-stabilizing communities. Of course, absent common space is not the only cause of societal ills, but it is a major cause.
Centrally-located people-priority social spaces and pedestrian networks are the only environments that fully facilitate human happiness. Visit places like Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, and you’ll experience environments radically superior to places dominated by through streets. Every community deserves social spaces – that includes you and me.
The importance of social space to healthy communities is so great that much of this blog will focus on the subject. I hope you’ll see that social space is a fascinating and exciting world. The potential to transform our current environments into incredible, wondrous places is practically limitless.