2 downtown streets define good (& bad) urban design

The only way to enjoy Free Street is for you and your office mates to drag your chairs out into one of the street's many parking lots on a sunny day.

One way to enjoy Free Street is to drag your chairs out into one of the street’s many parking lots on a sunny day.

For many people “good urban design” means pretty facades, handsome materials, and unique building shapes. By contrast, for us, good urban design is instead what attracts people to linger along streets and in squares.

Good city design includes many windows and doors, many side streets and many uses close together. We all sense good design –we seek out and relax in downtown places that have it and we avoid those that don’t.

This two-sided truth applies everywhere and can be found in downtown Portland. Consider Congress Street between Congress Square and Monument Square and its parallel cousin only one block away, Free Street.

Congress Street is so lively that during two hours one Saturday afternoon when it was snowing this March more than 800 people walked past its midpoint, the intersection with Casco Street and the front of Maine College of Art.

By contrast, on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon a month later, fewer than 50 people walked along Free Street behind that same MECA building.

What makes Congress Street so attractive and Free Street so repulsive?

The answers are many, and are described below. They form the components of good urban design. Working to see that these ingredients of attractive streets form the basis for the redevelopment of Portland is critical to our social and economic future.


1Visible interiors. Congress Street’s sidewalks are lined with display windows, one pane almost touching the next. Free Street presents mostly brick and concrete, walling out passersby. Even Free Street windows are small and high and covered with shades. “Keep out,” they seem to shout.

2Interactive first floors. On Congress Street you can not only see into buildings, you can enter them. Entry doors open every few feet—into shops, galleries and restaurants open to the public. Free Street’s doors are far apart, locked or blocked, or meant only for the building’s workers.

3Upper story interactions. There are upstairs shops and even some balconies on Congress Street, allowing interaction between upper floors and the street. Free Street has no upper story connections to the street.

4Ample walking room. Congress Street’s sidewalks are wide enough to allow walking, widow shopping and sitting, whereas the narrow runways along most of Free Street barely allow two people to walk side by side. Moreover, the freight doors, garage doors and driveways crossing Free Street’s sidewalks all signal that here even sidewalks belong to cars and trucks.

5For people not cars. Congress Street has no off-street parking, which should be a disadvantage, right? After all, many people have to drive to reach downtown. Meanwhile, Free Street is awash with off-street parking. But streetside parking lots and parking garages create dead zones. Who spends any time there?

6Active day and night. Every block of Congress Street attracts shoppers by day, restaurant-goers at night and MECA students at any hour. Meanwhile, even when the Civic Center has its occasional events, cars dominate Free Street.

7Fully multi-use. A person of most income levels can live, shop, go to school, and work on Congress Street. Free Street has only potential for housing, where there are now surface parking lots. Congress Street, like all multi-use streets, multiply the reasons to linger and the number of people to do so.

8Short blocks. Between the two squares, Congress Street has eight cross streets; Free Street, only five. More cross streets mean more choices, more nearby shops or housing and shorter routes to any destination. As a direct result, people on foot appreciate short blocks and seek them out. Free Street has some of the longest blocks downtown.

9Gimme Shelter. Congress Street offers sheltering alcoves, marquees and awnings. Unless you count the parking garage marquee, Free Street offers sheer walls to the tops of the buildings, offering no protection from wind, rain or snow.

10Details on Congress Street are almost all small and low, designed for walkers. The few signs on Free Street are large and high, intended for motorists speeding past. Wrong way, indeed!

11Parks and plazas. Congress Street has two open spaces for people, Congress Square Park and Monument Square. (Three if you count Longfellow Garden, and four if you count the raised sitting area at 511 Congress.) The park and plaza are now places to play, express ourselves, buy food, exercise, relax, socialize. Free Street just has itself and Michael Plaza. Do you know who Michael is? (He’s shown above right.) Have you ever relaxed on Free Street?

12Slow traffic. Congress Street slows traffic in both directions with blinking lights at Casco and Brown Streets, and full traffic lights at Forest and Preble. Turning traffic stops cars at Oak Street. Meantime, Free Street is a one-way stop-free highway ( a travel lane almost twice the needed width) from its top at the Art Museum to its toe in Monument Square. Walkers beware!

13Slow traffic. Congress Street slows traffic in both directions with blinking lights at Casco and Brown Streets, and full traffic lights at Forest and Preble. Turning traffic stops cars at Oak Street. Meantime, Free Street is a one-way stop-free highway ( a travel lane almost twice the needed width) from its top at the Art Museum to its toe in Monument Square. Walkers beware!

Walkable Free Street?

Walkble Free StreetThe only section of Free Street that is active is the lower end, and even then only on the side with Wigons, the Paper Patch and Arabicas, the side that looks most like, yup, Congress Street!

The rest of Free Street may become walker-friendly if—a big if—if new development fills in the surface parking lots with many first-floor shops with display windows and frequent entries, if stop signs and pedestrian nodes are inserted, and if sidewalks are widened with benches and bike racks.

Working to expand the number of blocks and streets built for people will require vigilance and will reward all our efforts.



2 Responses to 2 downtown streets define good (& bad) urban design

  1. Anne Schaff May 29, 2015 at 6:28 pm #

    I never thought about this; but I only think of Free Street as a place to park when I need to be downtown. It IS sad, unwelcoming and harsh. The hideous Civic Center, and truly I mean to emphasize hideous, and the lonely parking lots just next to the museum, and the back entry ways to flower shops and jewelry stores. My purposes are always on Congress, which is so lively and engaging. Thank you for posting. I’m amazed no one else has, since I rarely get downtown much anymore. I live in Deering Highlands but used to have a studio in the State Theater building.

  2. Christopher Closs June 2, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    I enjoyed this analysis of comparitive street functionality which raised several additional considerations and questions – which may help explain further why Free Street appears to have been “sacrificed” as a livable street.Other than the Civic Center, the predominant use of the street appears to be for automobile storage.

    Many of the larger “through blocks” between Congress and Free Streets – were designed to be serviced by heavy trucks from the rear, with respect to outbound freight shipping and inbound deliveries of materials, food stocks, etc. In this respect the function of these large early 20th C. blocks continues to influence the pedestrian character – or lack of it – of Free Street, based on building functionality. To favorably alter the impact on the street, building function may have to be changed – or a different system of commercial products delivery instituted – or the uses of these buildings re-purposed where the truck-based system is no longer required.

    Converting former loading bays into storefronts would contribute more transparency to the street. With respect to conversion of upper levels for residential use, it would seem that the north side of Free Street would be suitable in some instances, as this elevation faces both the Fore River – and the morning sun. For all that surface parking lots blight the soul, they do contribute at least a couple of positive factors along Free Street, including sunlight (or the absence of shadow); open space, views and improved air circulation.

    The analysis does provoke us to consider how rehabilitation choices and adaptive re-use of older buildings can be positive instruments in improving street character and livability.

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