Parking Lots the Problem with Cleveland Mayor’s Downtown Vision

Cleveland’s Mayor Jackson needs to be given credit in that he is at least talking to the talk. That is, he wants to design Downtown down to human scale. Part public space design, part pedestrian-level connectivity, the Mayor’s vision rightly understands that stand alone projects are just that: stand alone. No better than having telephone poles lining a street without the benefit of wires.

Parsing, the city’s philosophy of connectivity—and in a meta sense: vitality—seems to be that of the circulatory variety. In other words, you got a heart, you got lifeblood, and you got veins that move energy to enable the life of a system, or in this sense—a city. That is the theory at least. Below is a look at whether or not reality can meet the vision.

From a front pager in last Sunday’s Plain Dealer, the mayor says he is hell bent on recreating the city’s heart: Public Square. Now a collection of four, disparate quadrants made so by streets that are bus-heavy, he wants to—in his words—make it “into one big square”. The mayor sees the cohesive, redone space as an emanating source of movement that will pump life into the broader Downtown area. Below is a visual design of the concept that I created using the actual Cleveland grid.

Of course the question that begs asking is where will the people come from, or that lifeblood? The space is now filled mainly with people waiting for buses and smokers—or is plain empty. Perhaps folks in Downtown Cleveland will appear with a solid design. There are over 100,000 workers in the CBD. Over 10,000 Downtown residents. And the new casino will be placed right next to the Square. Yet the latter should not be the focus. It’s got to be about Clevelanders—the lunch crowd, the evening strollers, the suburban day-trippers.  In this sense, here is what success looks like. It is Boston’s Post Office Park. I recorded the video on a random Thursday lunch hour in August of last year.

Can it happen in Cleveland? The people, the coalescing? Why not. After all said William Whyte:

It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.

Okay, so you got a heart, you got some lifeblood, but what about the health of the veins that will hold the circulation. Again, the vision is there with the Mayor. The plan solid, good. Elaborating, from the same Plain Dealer article:

The mayor sees a unified Public Square as the centerpiece of an effort to connect all of downtown’s disparate districts with continuous green paths and streetscapes friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Still, the reality on the ground is troubling. In particular, Cleveland’s got a problem with its jonesing for surface lots. Take a look at the aerials below. One is a city (Toronto) with few lots and lots of vibrancy. The other is Cleveland. (Maps courtesy of

The problem with surface lots is that they create dead spaces, or using the circulatory metaphor: blockages of the arteries. Specifically, from the Smart Growth Network:

Parking lots have become the principal source of dead space in cities. No less authority than William H. Whyte considers them worse than blank walls. Parking lots crowd out active uses, leaving people with less reason to come to an area and park in the first place. Empty metal shells and expanses of flat black asphalt are less interesting than almost any building imaginable.

Overlaying the blockages (represented by black squares) over the circulatory pattern connecting central Cleveland places, one sees issues, particularly with the left side of the body. In short, the swath of asphalt shown below will annihilate walker intrigue and thus deter movement through that particular city section. This, then, is where surgical human scale intervention is needed and should be of utmost priority for the Mayor if he is serious about creating a vibrant, circular flow.

–By Richey Piiparinen

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