Civic Tourism, Placemaking, Road Diets, Parks and Physical Activity: A Unique Look at Issues with the Arch

I've recently come across three separate articles with very different subjects, but that together relate very well to downtown St. Louis and our Arch grounds: "Civic Tourism, and the Importance of Place," "Road Diets: Making Streets Slim Down is Good for Pedestrians, Businesses and Even Traffic," and "Parks, Playgrounds and Physical Activity." Taken together they offer a good view of the challenges we face and the opportunities in front of us.

Author Dan Shilling states that "civic tourism begins with the story of your place." The National Park Service and others have recognized the need to better tell the story of westward expansion and the role of St. Louis in that history. And there are many ways to tell that story literally through expanding programming and exhibits, but the physical place within which that story is being told often tells a louder, visceral, more revealing story. This is what he means by "place-based" tourism.

We must ask ourselves what the presence of an Interstate highway, lack of pedestrian amenities and connections and the total absence of business, retail and human activity adjacent to the Arch says to visitors. To me it says that residents do not go there and that they don't value its presence.

The essential point he makes is this: "Civic tourism flips the frame, privileging the needs of residents, not visitors; asking how we can use the industry to enhance the things people love about their place, rather than how we can use place to increase the industry’s bottom line." I would argue that what's good for residents is what's best for visitors as residents create the "place" that visitors desire to visit.

In the second article author Michael Bohn describes a road diet treatment in Long Beach, California. He hits on the effect an expanded pedestrian realm can have on the personal experience of visitors and on business. It's also noted that fewer, better designed traffic lanes can be better for traffic. The project he describes may be most similar to the South Grand and Manchester Avenue projects in St. Louis, but there are lessons for elsewhere.

Currently, the western length of the Arch grounds and the eastern edge of downtown St. Louis is devoid of a pedestrian realm. Can you walk there? Sure, but there is no reason to do so and every reason to move as quickly away from Interstate 70 as possible. A road diet here would utterly transform the landscape and introduce the incomparable view of the Arch and riverfront to people for the first time since the 1960's. Addressing I-70 downtown would also clearly create significant improvements in downtown accessibility for drivers.

In addition to a Memorial, the Arch grounds are a park, and by far downtown's largest. At 91 acres, there's a lot of green space surrounding the Arch. It is understood that there will not be softball fields or basketball courts on the Arch grounds, but there's no reason that the space shouldn't function better as a park.

The park should play a role in promoting health and wellness in St. Louis. The study "Parks, Playgrounds and Physical Activity" notes that "transportation to parks is a real constraint on park usage, particularly with low-income and minority families. When people have to drive to get to a park, they're less likely to use it. So pedestrian/bicycle connectors is one strategy to get people to parks, and the side benefit of that is that if you’re walking 10-15 minutes through your neighborhood to get to a park, that adds to your recommended level of physical activity. You don't even have to be active in that park, it could be a place that you go to meet friends or contemplate. So there has been a lot of promotion of the idea of building more travel routes and trail connectors in these areas."

This idea speaks very directly to the connectivity challenges one experiences when attempting to visit the Arch grounds. Much of the park is historic and should and will be preserved as-is. But is there room for a playground tucked in beside the north parking garage? If not a playground, why not a natural play area with small earth mounds to run and roll over? Why not a perimeter walking path with mile markers? Of course to make this work, accessibility must be addressed at all points along the park.

Together, these articles aren't prescriptive and they offer much more than I have highlighted, but they do offer unique ways in which to view our Arch and surrounding park beyond the singular focus on tourism and destination visitors.