Like many streets in New Orleans, Magazine Street defies urban design logic. It runs almost six miles, following the curving course of the Mississippi River, through several neighborhoods; the buildings along it are a kind of architectural mashup of styles, scales and ages. Parts of the street are busy, cluttered and urban, while other sections are loose and ramshackle. And yet the experience of walking along nearly all of it is remarkably pleasant, and for good reason: it’s designed for people. Although its authenticity is threatened by the arrival of chain stores, most of Magazine Street is proudly local. Here’s a look at part of this great street, near the Garden District, that illustrates its timeless principles of place.
A Good Street is DENSE
Long stretches of Magazine Street are a kind of stage set. They’re messy and unplanned, with a lot of overlapping activity, including dreaded cars. Here the road is narrow and accommodates just two lanes of traffic, which forces drivers to slow down and puts pedestrians on a more equal footing with plodding vehicles.
A Good Street is VISUAL
People crave visual variety. Even if they’re not in the mood to actually buy anything, they still like to shop with their eyes. The best streets use the architecture to frame that experience. On Magazine Street, there’s a pleasing rhythm of columns and trees separating each storefront, while the covered galleries create a series of discreet viewing boxes.
A Good Street is CLUTTERED
Parts of Magazine Street feel like a cozy house teeming with stuff: stores spill out onto the sidewalk with racks of merchandise, signs, and furniture. The sound of music, the smell of food, all contribute to this almost domestic feel. It’s a street that invites its visitors to sit down, have a drink or a bite to eat, or wander around inside. You feel comfortable, you’re home.
A Good Street is HUNGRY
Sidewalk dining, especially during lunch or dinnertime, creates an obstacle course for the senses. If you don’t know what you’re in the mood for, take an extended walk, because a good portion of the menus are out on live display.
A Good Street is FLEXIBLE
Empty lots on busy streets are usually deadly. But because Magazine Street is, for the most part, populated with local retailers, there’s an incentive to keep these spaces active. On nights when the galleries are open late, these lots often become open-air art galleries.
A Good Street is LAYERED
Streets evolve over decades. The range and variety of color, signs, storefront windows, furniture, even the junky stuff like telephone poles and garbage cans and parking meters, are a history lesson, an archeological college. So, the lesson for designers today is simple: you can’t and shouldn’t design everything. Create the stage set, the frame for action, and let time do the rest.