Street Talk

Downtown Sidewalks Are Much More Than Just A Place For Pedestrians To Stroll

By Mickey Howley

Part of the deal of being a Mississippi Main Street Community is attending the quarterly manager meetings.

These meetings are part training sessions, part looking around in depth at a specific town in the program, part finding out what the other 55 Main Street towns statewide are doing and part just getting out on the town.

So right after the Main St. Market Festival, I went to Natchez for a two day meeting.

The Main Street main office in Jackson usually brings some pretty interesting professionals to these meetings. Tom McGilloway, an architect with Mahan-Rykiel Architects in Baltimore, gave two presentations and critiqued a group design project.

Tom’s specialty is open street spaces, such as sidewalks, pocket parks, pedestrian zones and parking. He designs all the stuff surrounding downtown buildings, which makes up a good third, often overlooked, of the overall downtown space.

Tom is an east coast kind of guy. He went to Penn State, he lives in Baltimore, but all is not lost. He has worked extensively in the Carolinas and was part of the design crew that was on the coast after Katrina working with the five hardest hit towns there. He knows that in the south, downtown sidewalks are places not only to get from one point to another, but a space to get out of the sun, to have a conversation, or just to watch the world go by.

Tom’s talk on downtown sidewalks was, I thought, relevant to Water Valley. He pointed out that the average downtown sidewalk was at least 12 feet wide. He divides sidewalks into three use zones. The first zone is the first four feet off the building, the space under an awning, is great for temporary use by merchants. Sidewalk sales, outdoor tables and chairs, sandwich board signs advertising are all good in that first 4 foot zone from the building.

The center zone is at least 6 feet wide and this is the walking zone. It is wide enough for two people to walk side by side or for people to pass one another comfortably.

The curb side zone covers the last 2 feet of sidewalk and this space is the visual divider between street and sidewalk. Here is where the trees, bushes, flowers, trash cans, and community signage all go.

I had a practical lesson in all this sidewalk stuff after leaving Natchez. I went down to the coast and through all the towns that Katrina tore up. The new roads and sidewalks are definitely more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

I continued on over to the Florida panhandle. We were having lunch at a sidewalk cafe in one of those trying to be upscale beach towns. The outside tables were right on the curb, the flower planter was right next to the building under the awning.

So with the noonday sun burning a hole in my bald head, a Nissan SUV from a suburb of Atlanta backed in to within 2 feet of where we were eating. I suppose the 30 seconds of twin exhaust flavoring my shrimp salad was better than having the grilled smell of radiator roasted insects, but eating that close to maneuvering vehicles made me nervous.  

Plus, had the flower planter and tables been reversed, the restaurant’s wait staff would have had to walk 30 feet less each round trip to the table.  I thought for a second I should give Tom’s card to the owner.

Last week’s survey on the historical houses tour had Victorians and Queen Anne’s as the majority favorite; no one liked ranch houses. Remember the Farmers Market is this and every Saturday from 8 to 11 under the big magnolia. Visit www.watervalleymainstreet.com for this week’s survey on how you do or don’t relate to sidewalks.

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