Designing Successful Neighborhood Squares. Part 2: Accessibility

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

At the crossing of pedestrian ways
A neighborhood square must be located at the central crossing point of a network of interconnected pedestrian routes through the neighborhood. As local residents walk through the square on their way to work, school, shopping, running errands, or to catch transit to the city center, their paths cross, affording the chance for a greeting or extended conversation. When people pass each other on a regular basis in the same place, the “stranger” becomes a “familiar”, and gradually the “familiar” may become a friend, or member of one’s circle.

For children, especially, the network of pedestrian routes that lead to the square must be safe and traffic-calmed or traffic-free. This allows children to become independent at an early age, and to make their own way to meet their friends on the square. It gives elders greater confidence in walking to the square, even when their mobility is limited.

On good pedestrian networks, the pedestrian is given priority in crossing traffic by continuity of the pedestrian surface: the automobile must slow down to drive over this raised area.

Access by bike

The neighborhood square should be the starting point for developing a bicycle network linking the square to significant community services, schools, civic and business centers, and out into the neighborhood.  The square should provide ample bike parking, and bike services nearby.

Thought should also be given to enabling children to safely access the square on their wheels - roller blades/skates or on skateboards - using safe pedestrian paths through the neighborhood.

Bikers should walk with their bike through a pedestrian square and only mount their bike outside the square. A person biking through the neighborhood is more available to stop for conversation than one in a car, and thus contributes to the development of community, as well as improving sustainability.

To enable young and old to bike in safety, cycle tracks should be separate from vehicular traffic and pedestrian traffic wherever possible. A kerb prevents bicyclists straying into pedestrians, startling elders and endangering children.  Physical barrier such as planters, trees or difference in level are also required between bicyclists and traffic. If a parking lane is adjacent to a bike lane there must also be a spatial barrier to allow passengers to open car doors without blocking bike lanes.

At traffic intersections that combine vehicles and bikes, whenever possible, bicyclists move ahead of vehicles, or have their own traffic signals that prioritize their movement. The best bike routes are those that involve no interaction with vehicles whatsoever. Rivers, canals and abandoned railway lines, such as the B-Line, a rail-to-trail project which is forming the spine of a new “Lifetime Community District” in Bloomington, IN, or the bicycle and pedestrian route along the banks of the Dreisam river in Freiburg are excellent models.

Access by public transit

The neighborhood square needs to be located adjacent to public transit to the city center. Since one needs to keep the square as free from traffic as possible, and the neighborhood square is likely to be small, it is preferable that the transit line does not run through the square, or directly along one side of the square. The ideal location would be to have the main transit junction one block away from the square.

At Orenco Station, a new urbanist development near Hillsboro, OR, a square is now being developed at the light rail station, which is located several blocks from the main commercial street. The plaza is 500’ east to west and 100’ north to south, with the light rail running along the southern edge, thus making it impossible to create a diverse, active southern façade apart from commuter traffic.

Since the square is at the southern edge of the neighborhood, the only pedestrian routes through the square are to and from the transit station. There is some housing south of the transit station, but no other destinations. There is a U-shaped traffic calmed vehicle access for drop off at the station. It remains to be seen whether the square will function as a community living room, or merely as a forecourt for the transit station and the commercial buildings on the north side.

Access by car

Access to a neighborhood square by car and taxi should be possible, but less easy than access on foot. For those who live within walking distance, it should be made more pleasant to walk. This can be achieved through traffic calmed streets, “Green streets”, pedestrian streets and “Wohnstrasse”. These slow streets should predominate in the surrounding blocks, slowing traffic to 20 mph, or even to walking speed.

Parking

When creating a neighborhood square, it is worth considering placing underground parking beneath it. This is valuable especially for residents in surrounding blocks, and to accommodate commuters or shoppers from further away who cannot take transit. Parking on the street should be limited. There should be no surface parking lots; all adjacent blocks should be developed to human scale with mixed-use to accommodate the residential population, shops and workplaces that are necessary to ensure a dynamic neighborhood and a lively square.

In Portland’s new mixed-use Pearl District that contains several parks, almost all parking is underground. In Portland’s new 18 acres Slabtown neighborhood that is programmed to contain a neighborhood community square, most of the land will contain underground parking, and prioritize access on foot, by bike and streetcar. 

Turn to: Part 3. Size and Shape