For a dose of urban optimism, check out that new way-finding map set up at the north end of Helena's downtown mall, particularly the circle drawn to show what's within a twenty-minute walk of that point.

Thousands of homes are in that circle, along with downtown, Carroll College, the Capitol, assorted parks and a dozen open-lands trailheads.

So, despite our long, goofy, love affair with cars and the suburban and exurban sprawl that resulted, Helena retains a potentially walkable core. Proximities we inherited from days when folks expected to get around town on foot are still there.

That's good to know when worries about health, pollution and climate change have gotten real enough to suggest we ease off the gas and reconsider other ways of moving around.

But there's a catch. Proximity on a map isn't the same as walkability on the ground. Even in the circle, Helena is broken into pedestrian-friendly islands beckoning to each other across unfriendly stretches of asphalt.

An island-hopping walk can be a challenge, demanding chutzpah and well-tuned jaywalking skills. That can be fun, of course, but it's hardly the sort of fun that counts as an experience of urban walkability.

That's a problem. Walking should suit everybody, not just the intrepid. What'll it take to make the prospect of an urban walk more appealing than firing up the SUV? Is it even possible?

Maybe it is, if we understand what makes those pedestrian-friendly islands so friendly, and then figure out how to extend it across the gaps. The islands are all different, but do they share something in common?

It seems that all of them, in one way or another, play directly to one advantage peculiar to being afoot. Call it, for lack of a handier term, the freedom to engage.

Afoot, we're slow and exposed, at the mercy of the urban outdoors -- but that can be a big advantage. Undistracted by the speed, bulk, isolation and other awkward complications of being tied to a vehicle, we're free to engage with whatever and whoever we meet out there. Pedestrian-friendliness is the presence of something positive to engage with.

That can be almost anything, and when it comes to island-hopping, it can be as simple as a well-sited and clearly visible invitation to cross the gap without the usual risk of getting run over. Take, for example, the Lyndale underpass.

It's perfectly sited to connect the Carroll and Centennial Park islands with downtown, by way of the Great Northern island, and it's the only place to cross the US-12 corridor without having to dodge four or more lanes of highway traffic. It works.

But, it could work better. The link toward Carroll is weak -- a problem handled by intrepid pedestrians with their spontaneous trail up that artificial talus slope outside the north portal -- and then there's that "gerbil tunnel" factor.

Folks don't like tunnels, so it's said, so this one tries to be likable by being wide and vaulted, and with an ancient architectural trick to lessen the sense of stepping into an uncomfortably confining space. The portals are made to look taller and wider, and the concrete less weighty, by use of concentric arches telescoping in toward the opening, in effect turning one heavy archway into a nested set of lighter ones.

So, it's got good bones, but they're still cold naked concrete. Such nested archways, traditionally, were decorated at a scale to emphasize that this is a space to be walked through -- a job, here, for public art.

It only makes sense to deploy public art in the cause of walkability. Artists want their stuff to be seen, and pedestrians not only want something to see, but are uniquely free to pause and actually see it.

Much the same is true for landscaping, other architectural tricks, and all sorts of things that don't mean much unless approached afoot. Helena can show us a whole lot about urban walkability, if we just walk out there and look.

Dennis McCahon


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