Peter Bruce, Pedestrian Expert
We may be one of the fittest cities in the nation, but when it comes to shopping, don’t expect a Minnesotan to cross the street.
I’m guilty of standing outside Parc boutique on East Hennepin, within eyesight of Mona Williams on University Avenue, and electing to move my car closer to the store, rather than walking the block and a half. I’m not proud. And I’m generally not that lazy. In New York or Chicago, I’ll overheat my Fitbit, hoofing it from one neighborhood to the next. But at home in the Twin Cities, if my primary purpose is not exercise, I tend to fall into bad habits: driving from one end of a strip center to the other so I don’t have to carry my Trader Joe’s bags across the asphalt expanse to Dick’s Sporting Goods. It’s the reality of a metropolitan area where cars are the primary mode of transport, parking is relatively easy, cold is a serious factor, and many commercial districts lack the critical mass to make you feel like you’re going to miss something if you don’t cover every inch of sidewalk. I wasn’t surprised when Mona Williams’s neighbor, Primrose Park, fled that corner of East Hennepin and University avenues in Northeast Minneapolis for a Woodbury strip center with a big ol’ surface lot out front.
I believe that same mentality had something to do with the demise of the Jonathan Adler store in Uptown earlier this year. Locals filled that Lake Street store to capacity for an opening party in 2012, attended by Jonathan Adler himself. Less than four years later, the company packed up its pottery and left. You can argue Uptown was the wrong neighborhood altogether for Jonathan Adler, that Galleria shoppers would have been more likely to buy the brand’s $2,500 bouclé and brass chairs or $1,500 Lucite feet (it’s art!), but Jonathan Adler stores are generally on the street—not at malls—in hip, urban areas. However, in Minneapolis, being two long blocks from CB2 and Roam Interiors, and a block off of the main intersection of Lake and Hennepin, was a death sentence. The high-end shopper who visits Uptown is on a mission, not strolling the neighborhood.
I put that theory to the test with the man who knows best: Peter Bruce is an expert in pedestrian studies. That’s a real job—he basically invented it. Bruce got interested in urban geography at Macalester College. For a school project, he conducted a study on what people actually see as they go down a street by car, bus, or on foot. He realized it isn’t always what retailers think—the intricate window displays or sale signs on the door—rather it’s big block letters, bright colors, and signs that protrude, calling attention from the other end of the street. Bruce’s Minneapolis-based company, Pedestrian Studies and Projects, has counted traffic and analyzed commercial corridors across the country, from downtown St. Paul to the Los Angeles Fashion District. He agrees that the Twin Cities isn’t the most walking-oriented—despite our endless miles of paths and numerous retail hubs (would fewer, but denser help?). He believes the addition of light rail transit is helping us think more about sightlines and how to improve the experience of traveling through a shopping district.
We met in Uptown back in February, on a day so cold I packed pencils for fear the ink in my pen would freeze. From the exterior of Calhoun Square at the corner of Lake and Hennepin, Bruce’s first observation was plain: “Is this the entrance? I don’t see storefronts. It doesn’t make me want to walk inside.”
But we persisted, because—did I mention?—the wind chill! Right away, bags of charcoal stacked in front of Kitchen Window caught Bruce’s eye. “That doesn’t help the ambiance.” Dogwood Coffee Co. broke what Bruce calls the 100-foot rule. “The seats are too far away from the counter.”
Back on the street, Bruce stared straight up the road to evaluate what he could see. Despite a block packed with stores, the answer was: not enough. When cities spend money on sidewalk trees, benches, lighting, digital kiosks, that’s because Bruce’s studies show they help to increase pedestrian traffic and engagement. In a nutshell: We will walk toward shiny objects; we will linger where it’s scenic and lively.
Meanwhile, at the corner of Lake and Hennepin, I tried to step outside of my shopping editor self and imagine not knowing that Fjällräven or John Fluevog were up the block. Would I walk closer? Particularly on a cold day? “Most people won’t go more than 300 feet unless they see something that entices them,” Bruce says. Jonathan Adler was definitely further than that from the main intersection. We peered down the quiet block, sighed, and turned back toward our cars.