“Greenville doesn’t have a train station“, a (Greenville) taxi driver assured me over the phone. Curious since we were on a train headed for Greenville. It’s an assertion repeated over the course of a weekend wedding in the city of Greenville, South Carolina – which turns out to be a busy freight & passenger hub by rail standards. Greenville sits two thirds of the way from New York to New Orleans on the 100+ year old ‘Crescent‘ route; passing through New York state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina before arriving at this once-great textile town.
We chose to take the Crescent train for a few reasons. Partly the romance of long haul train travel; sleeper cabins and dining cars, a moving landscape, and increasingly the bonus of avoiding stressed airports with demeaning security. Also the convenience of departing New York’s Penn Station around lunch time, delivered to Greenville just before dawn the next day. Hence the taxi. But it turns out that taxis – in fact, any public transport – is a rarity. This is a car place.
Footpaths are evident, but sparse. Pedestrian ‘cross walks’ are even more scarce outside of the city centre (which is a whole other story). We talk about ‘walkable’ communities and often struggle to know what this means. As a baseline it means having footpaths that are safe, even, well landscaped and well lit. That connect to bus stops and pedestrian crossings, linked to our shops and schools to encourage people to walk or cycle, not drive. Like many Australian cities, towns and places, Greenville caters well for walkers in the town centre. Not so well in the suburbs. Footpaths are often missing, and in one instance, we had to negotiate 11 lanes of traffic without a pedestrian signal to guide us or the drivers looking in amazement at people on foot.
Greenville’s town centre – literally ‘Main St’ – is another story. Locals tells of a central business area boarded up and unsafe only 15 years ago. Shopkeepers would alert police as they left. For Greenville’s kids it was a no-go zone.
Today, it’s acknowledged as one of the great streets in the US. Rightly so. Old hotels were restored and reopened, bars and cafes were encouraged in disused older buildings. Generous planters are well maintained, and a consistent canopy of street trees make it a really pleasant walk down towards the city’s central ‘Reedy River’.
And in a final act of transformation – a roadbridge was demolished to make way for the elegant ‘Liberty’ footbridge at a level below Main St; coaxing you down through gardens across an arc-ing bridge poised over the spectacular river below. There was an outcry at the demolition of the road bridge but the boost in cafes, tourists, lovers, runners, walkers, families and bold public art has proved its backers right.
Greenville proves a few things. Firstly that designing with people in mind is an essential part of city renewal. It may not seem groundbreaking but a recent tweet from the UK’s Neil McInroy was right on; ‘placemaking doesn’t need Coco the clown, it needs new economic strategies‘. The rise of temporary, inexpensive ‘pop ups’ is an important ‘work around’ in a post GFC world, but it’s no substitute for long term, intelligent investment in quality public space. The two go together. Greenville’s bold move to narrow the road to create wide footpaths, work with business to open shops and support reuse of existing building stock is what we’re seeing in Prospect and Walkerville. With ongoing commitment and partnership from local businesses, these streets will be growth centres of the next decade.
Greenville was no ‘tart up’. New pavers and lighting is part of the remedy. But so too are the hard moves like widening footpaths (yes, narrowing roads) and funding maintenance to give greenery on the street a fighting chance. Economic strategies like Greenville’s investment in a cultural program that birthed the ‘Peace Centre for Performing Arts‘ are also essential. The Peace Centre reaches out to Main St via a large square with free, regular outdoor music and theatre. It’s only when economic development, planning, environmental and cultural programs align that cities get sustained investment in renewal. And results. And for these agendas to converge, a common target is needed. And this generally happens through the multi-lingual vocabulary of design.
So anyone who tells you ‘it’s not about design, it’s about activation’ has it half right. It’s about both.
Like most urban centres, Greenville is a tale of two cities; a reborn centre that hums with people along the length of its Main St, surrounded by suburbs of large cars and parking lots. Sitting in traffic en route to the wedding reminds us what’s at stake. A large man lumbered painfully from a fast food joint across the bitumen to his large SUV. Moving seemed to hurt. Even getting in to the car was an effort. Obesity, poor food choice, and sedentary living. Getting us out of our cars and getting us active isn’t a sacrifice. It’s about making sure we can live the life we want for longer. With better health.
Making our places more walk-friendly and cycle-friendly is the only option if we want to head off tomorrow’s crippling health costs to treat the sickness we find so hard to prevent today.
Go Greenville (and PS, your train station is as 1120 East Washington St)