I am writing to express my pleasure in reading that there are discussions in the Portsmouth City Council of trialing a pedestrian zone on selected streets within downtown Portsmouth during this summer.
While my wife and I are residents of Eliot, Maine, we consider Portsmouth "our city" as we make it a regular destination for shopping, passing time at the many coffee shops, dinner at some of the best restaurants in the area, and entertainment for music and theatre. We also do volunteer work for the Seacoast Repertory Theatre.
The idea of creating a pedestrian zone in Portsmouth is long overdue.
My wife and I have traveled extensively throughout Europe enjoying the pedestrian-only squares found throughout cities in Western Europe and have always wondered why Portsmouth couldn't create a similar experience in the Market Square area. We also recently traveled to Burlington, Vermont and discovered the Church Street Marketplace and were thrilled to see that pedestrian spaces in this country really are doable.
Talking to the local residents there, they told us how the store and restaurant owners were vehemently against the idea of turning that space into pedestrian-only when it was first proposed but now that they have had it for some decades, it's highly popular and has done so much to improve the experience of living in and visiting the city.
Specifically thinking about the improvements that Market Square could enjoy, I'm reminded of several summer evenings sitting outside Breaking New Grounds. While the experience was pleasant to sit and drink a coffee while visiting with friends, we were struck by how noisy it was with all of the cars trying to merge into Congress street. It really detracted from the experience and I wondered why someone hadn't apparently considered making the whole area pedestrian only. A pedestrian zone around Market, Congress, and Pleasant streets would really enhance the area allowing for more pleasant outdoor sitting/eating experiences. People might be able to hear musicians playing near the North Church. It would become a space where people can gather and visit without dealing with through traffic.
There will certainly be those who are resistant to any change and who will quickly identify every possible problem that can be conceived (loss of parking revenue, handicapped access, delivery access, presumed unwillingness of people to walk, someone even questioned what to do if it rains...). These problems obviously have been handled in other places where pedestrian zones have been created. Portsmouth is not venturing into unconquered territory here. Perhaps while collecting the initial research data, it would be useful to understand how other cities have handled these types of issues. People also complain that this idea is a solution looking for a problem. I would maintain that this doesn't have to be about trying to fix a problem. It's about making something better.
In looking at other cities, I notice that the city of Montreal has done a gradual expansion of its pedestrian zone. They added, on a trial basis, another street or two each year, determined the problems, and resolved them. In reading the initial plans for weekends during this summer, my only concern is trying to create a too-large pedestrian zone at one time. I think it would be helpful to start a pedestrian zone in the most center area of downtown Portsmouth (Congress, Pleasant, Market, and Daniel). In that way, the adjacent streets would continue to support vehicle traffic surrounding the pedestrian zone and would minimize disruption. Using this area, it would serve to test the concept and ideally encourage bordering streets to want to be included as the experiment proves successful.
I hope that Portsmouth will move forward with this experiment and that it is as successful as in other dynamic cities around the world.