Pedestrian Observations from Providence in Summer
I’d only visited Providence once, for two hours in the dead of winter, and found the downtown/mall area dreary. I just visited twice again to look at apartments, and saw much better. Providence’s downtown is still dominated by single-use office buildings and was dead on Sunday, but the East Side neighborhoods I saw near Brown are walkable.
To see what I’m talking about, look at photos like this, this, this, this, and this. The streets are about the same width you’d expect of suburban side streets: the roadways are 6-7 meters on the narrowest streets, and 9-10 meters on slightly wider residential streets. The buildings are detached and look similar to those in the older postwar suburbs, though in fact many are historic and date back to the 1800s or even the late 1700s.
The difference with the suburbs is that there are no setbacks, which means the buildings provide an adequate street wall. The building to building distance is about 12 meters at the narrowest and 18 at the widest. Many streets are planted, so the trees provide shade and make it pleasant to walk in the summer heat. The streets are reasonably car-friendly and most apartments I’ve seen come with parking, but they don’t let the parking interfere with a pleasant pedestrian experience.
It’s at the periphery of the neighborhood that you can see signs of the general auto-oriented nature of the area. South and west of campus, the two commercial streets are Wickenden and (South) Main. There are a few grocery stores and eating places on other streets, but those two have more commercial activity. Each alone is walkable, with reasonable traffic speeds, and a street wall. However, their intersection, located too close to the freeways that surround and divide the city, is not. Its signal timing is pedestrian-hostile, and instead of more intense corner commercial development, it has a parking lot, a gas station, and open space.
And downtown Providence is a completely different world from the East Side. The streets are in principle walkable, but many buildings are urban renewal projects, and the area is single-use office space apart from some condos right next to the train station. The commercial development has for the most part been collected into the Providence Place Mall or the historic streets close to Brown, such as Main. By the standards of the larger cities of the Northeast, or even New Haven, there’s very little there.
Unless you have long-term plans to widen a road, I’ve always felt setbacks were a waste of land, particularly in residential areas. Mostly people do not use their front yard. In retail areas, a lack of setbacks means that people walk right past shop windows, which makes you feel like you’re actually wlaking *in* a shopping area, as opposed to walking past a parking lot (with some shops on the far side). (Windows are important – why else would you still get them in malls?)