Lately, in anticipation of coming commuter rail, I’ve been writing about the new Frontrunner train station in Provo. It has it’s problems, but is still reasonably walkable in relation to both downtown and the mall.
So how can it be even better?
One big way would be to increase population density in that area, dramatically if possible. Research indicates that the population will increase anyway, and that many people will want to live in an urban (read: dense) setting. (Increasing population density is such a fundamental idea in urban design right now that I couldn’t decide what to link to. So instead, I’m linking to The Atlantic Cities density section, where you can read several articles about this idea.)
But another way to increase the walkability around the train station (or anywhere, really) is to eliminate or smooth out the psychological barriers in the area. In other words, the area around the station seems remote and perception of the distance around it “warps” long. We should work to reverse that, making it seem shorter than it does now — and ideally even shorter than it actually is.
I find the ideas of Kevin Lynch once again useful here. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t yet read his book The Image of the City, but I’ve read a lot of writing that is influenced by it.
Specifically, Lynch has pointed out that people identify “districts” and “edges,” among other things, as they navigate a city. As downtown Provo is currently laid out, I’d argue that there are at least two districts between the Frontrunner station and Center Street. The first district seems to be the area below 300 South. It’s an industrial and occasionally commercial area that appears badly neglected.
The next district, I think, extends from 300 South up to either 100 South or even Center Street itself. This area isn’t quite as blighted as it’s neighboring district, but it’s still not great.
The major north-south edges in this area seem to be 300 South, 600 South, and the roundabout just before the mall.
The point is that these divisions, psychological as they may be, make the Frontrunner station seem far away.
Consequently, the best way to improve the area around the station, encourage walkability, and even motivate drivers to use the train is to smooth out these divisions. I’m well away that the city hopes to revitalize downtown and that the long-term goal is to improve everything in between Center Street and the station.
But as we do that, we need to keep in mind that if it continues to feel distant from everything, people will be less likely to use it. In other words, revitalization is only half the battle. The other half is a smooth an integrated transition — or a single “district” free from major “edges” — from the train station to downtown.