That’s So Pedestrian: The Pedestrian Mall Still Succeeds in the American College Town
by Andy Meessmann, Associate ASLA

At the edge of many college campuses and downtowns a unique experience emerges: the pedestrian mall. It is where town meets gown and citizens and students intermix, celebrate, and unite as one social mass. Customers patronize specialty shops, children run through fountains, citizens walk on the way to work, and students meander through the space. First created in the 1960s, the pedestrian mall is still alive and well in the American college town.

A prime example of this phenomenon is Iowa’s Pedestrian (Ped) Mall in downtown Iowa City. Walking through the mall supports the claim that pedestrian malls can be and are an asset and success for many cities. On a typical day, Iowa City’s Ped Mall is bustling with activity and use. Young children splash in the fountain, college students attending the University of Iowa traverse the mall on their way to class, and businesses are crowded with shoppers. Further, the Ped Mall in Iowa City has undergone a development boom in the past five years and now supports two high-rise hotels, a grocery store, and Iowa City’s recently renovated public library. The Ped Mall is compact and comfortable, and the automobile is nowhere to be seen.

Iowa City, Iowa’s Ped Mall. Image courtesy Andy Meessmann.

The pedestrian mall in the American college town has some how escaped the demise of many other failed such malls throughout the nation, and it has captured all age groups to activate the space year round. How is this possible? 

Examining Madison, Wisconsin; Burlington, Vermont; and Iowa City reveals a set of common elements that have increased age diversity in a downtown area. One significant element is the proximity of a library to the pedestrian mall. In Iowa City, the public library is on the eastern boundary of the Ped Mall. A large playground is also located within the area so children can flow freely from library to play. Madison and Burlington’s main public libraries are situated only one block from their pedestrian malls, creating multifunctional space for a host of age groups.  Another element is the location of attractive shops and restaurants in or near the pedestrian mall.

Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street Pedestrian Mall. Image courtesy Andy Meessmann.

An additional common feature is the contiguity to the mall of one or more key anchors. At the end of Charlottesville, Virginia’s, Main Street pedestrian mall is the Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater that holds 3,500 people for concerts and city events. Sixty-foot tall willow oaks form a central artery down the mall, creating a shaded path for concert goers. The pedestrian mall also benefits from an active nightlife that draws thousands of college students to the space in the evening. The space may become a giant open air bar, with food vendors and live music that filters out of venues. After a night of indulgence and entertainment, the streets are swept and the space is once again bustling with daytime normalcy. 

Charlottesville, Virginia’s Pedestrian Mall entrance to Pavilion. Image courtesy Andy Meessmann.

Charlottesville, Virginia’s Pedestrian Mall entertainment space. Image courtesy Andy Meessmann.

For countless towns, the pedestrian mall has been converted back to automobile use and labeled a planning and design blunder. However, their success in the American college town is unmatched. In virtually every college town, somewhere at the edge of campus and downtown, there is a transition away from the school environment that often goes unnoticed. The best college towns can create, capture, and enhance this experience in the form of a pedestrian mall.

Andy Meessmann, Associate ASLA, is a landscape architect at Big Muddy Workshop in Omaha, Nebraska and can be reached at:

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