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The secret to revitalizing urban downtowns

In the postwar blur of suburban sprawl, interstate highways, white flight, and social uprisings, American cities saw their downtowns drained of life in the 1960s. One of the more common attempts to revive them was the development of pedestrian malls. Closed to vehicular traffic and inspired by successful pedestrianized areas in Europe, these shopping streets turned otherwise normal downtown thoroughfares into strolling spaces lined with ground floor retail, seating, planters, and pedestrian amenities. They were seen as a way to revitalize downtowns in the ’60s and ’70s, and re-create the kinds of lively, interesting public spaces that once made up the heart of cities. Enclosed suburban shopping malls were growing in popularity across the country, particularly in the suburbs. If it worked inside, the thinking went, maybe it could work outside, too.

It did not. The majority of pedestrian malls struggled to lure shoppers and eventually were reopened to vehicular traffic, including malls in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Chicago, ending what was, for most cities, a brief experiment in creating pedestrian-focused shopping areas.

But some pedestrian malls have managed to live surprisingly long lives, and could suggest ways for cities and developers to bring back an urban form many have written off as a failure.

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