Before arriving in Duluth, I had a very little idea of what made it different from other Midwestern cities. I knew it was in Northern Minnesota so it had to be cold, it was beside a Great Lake, and that it was the starting point of Interstate-35, the major freeway that winds through the country and into my home in Dallas.
The first thing I noticed when getting off the plane were the trees. And then the hills. And finally, the lake. Everyone said the name was accurate and that it truly was Superior to all the other Great Lakes. And standing on the water’s edge, I could see that. The natural beauty was overwhelming.
Later that afternoon, I presented at a bicycle conference, hosted by the community organization Zeitgeist, on our work with the Better Block. The city experienced the same issues found around the country with loss of industry, disinvestment, and depopulation. This conference was focused on promoting bicycle networks as a way to re-think streets and provide a safer commute for a growing bicycle culture. At the end of the presentation, I challenged the community to host their own urban intervention to address problems that had evolved out of the mid-century emphasis on auto infrastructure.
Within weeks, the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation offered to sponsor an effort coordinated by Zeitgeist and supported by the Better Block Foundation.
As with any project, we did an analysis of the areas around the city to identify opportunity. We also surveyed the community asking what works and what needed improvement. Throughout the process, the Hillside neighborhood stood out: it’s close to downtown, but with known problems of division largely due to a wide, four-lane street acting as a high-speed wedge dividing residents from businesses. Children had difficulty crossing the street to reach their schools, and a recent pedestrian fatality had made the issue of addressing the road more pressing.
Other issues included the suburban land-form, which drew a stark comparison from the adjacent downtown building line. Gas stations with large automobile setbacks, former oil-change businesses, and grocery stores eroded the walkable environment. This magnified the conflicts among pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.
As I had already discovered, the natural environment around Duluth is enchanting. And the community knows that this is a large asset. Most of the results from the survey cited the natural environment as the most beloved characteristic. And yet, much had been done to block residents from the natural beauty. View corridors were blocked by development and large advertising signs. Portions of Interstate 35 separate residents from the water’s edge. City planners have made strides to create better connections for people, but it’s obvious that pedestrian accommodation and quality of life is secondary to automobile throughput.
We saw this when our plans for addressing the street were met with strong concerns over driver safety but little regard to the pedestrian fatality that had already taken place.
The other notable issue for Duluth was its latitude. Surprisingly, the city is North of Toronto. That and its juxtaposition to Lake Superior means that temperatures regularly reside below freezing.
Taking a look at all this, we devised a site plan that would address the street’s scale, the lack of accommodations for multiple modes of transportation, a human-focused land use, and a bridge to the literal and psychological division of community created by all three. And, of course, a plan for embracing the cold chill of winter.
After discussions with the community, we came up with the idea of a Transit Hub. This space would be used for ride share and bus transit users, as well as house bicycle parking. As the concept continued to develop, we added spaces for merchants as well as design elements to turn it into a landmark. Looking for past precedence, the idea of the classic town train station formed. Thinking about how these structures were gateways to the city, as well as a place to see people off, read local notices, grab a quick meal or coffee, and a newspaper, the transit hub itself began morphing into a Multi-Modal Transit Station that would be the signifier to any entering that they’ve landed at a neighborhood.
Better Block designers set to work studying classic train stations, taking cues from their footprints and their use. The space that people would enter after arriving at the “station” would be a community plaza. Other ideas sought by residents were creating places for families to gather. This would require designing play into the space, as well as tables, chairs, and lighting to offer opportunities to linger.
The street required narrowing the intersection and creating safe spaces like pedestrian islands to slow traffic as well as create respites for people crossing. In order to slow traffic along Sixth Avenue, we created a plan drawing from inspiration from suburban streets in Holland where cars are required to make serpentine motions at intersections. The city’s only requirement was to allow outbound traffic two lanes, while the inbound could be narrowed to one.
With the excess and unneeded space taken from the automobile lanes, bike lanes could be installed. Also, the development of a safer Dutch-style intersection could be implemented, which offers a series of enhancements that increases safety for all users, while providing clarity of movement for cars.
A Series of Setbacks
We have found that there are often divisions in eras of engineering for cities. There’s one camp whose utmost concern is level of service for vehicles. The other looks at the correlation between city streets and health, land use, economic development, and safety. There’s a dichotomy in cities with downtowns being dense with slower traffic and accommodations for a more substantial pedestrian presence, and another outside of this area that understandably focuses on automobiles due to changes in scale. The issue engineers face is that what’s needed for one is nearly the opposite for the other.
We saw this come to fruition during this project. Unfortunately, enough hurdles took place in the implementation of the road changes that the street demonstration had to be shelved for the time being.
The Better Block
On the week of the project, volunteers joined our team on-site in 30-degree weather to transform the area. They built children’s play elements using our Wikiblock technique, installed tables, benches, hung lights, and painted chalkboard signs for families to share ideas for the area.
To bring a little hygge to Duluth, fire pits were brought onsite, as well as cozy blankets, hot chocolate and coffee vendors, and outdoor barbecue grills. A programming schedule was developed for resident artists to perform and enliven the block.
And through it all, we built the very first Multi-Modal Transit Hub. On the day of the event, merchants setup in it. Residents walked, bicycled, and drove to the block and were able to experience a completely different space than the former parking lot.
Children played, couples sat beside fire pits, residents interacted and shared food, and ultimately, ideas on the possibilities were discussed. It was the feeling of being in a neighborhood among new friends who realized they had everything they needed to create the kind of place they always dreamed of.
The project was able to show that there is a pent-up demand for quality, human-scaled spaces in Hillside. The strengths of the neighborhood include its diversity and its mix of incomes. Small business opportunities should flourish in any future developments that take hold in the area.
When everything was complete, a Welcome to Hillside sign was erected, letting residents know that they’ve entered a special place, full of neighbors who not only enjoyed spending time together in a block they helped shape, but one they could point to as a defining point for future community-driven change.