Travel Column: Armenia's Lesson in Street Life

Updated September 17, 2004

A small experiment in Gyumri, Armenia has shown how easy it is to turn an urban dead zone into an appealing, living place.

Gyumri boasts two Soviet-era monumental, lifeless city squares. You know the type: asphalt deserts walled by concrete office facades, beloved by urban planners and hated by travelers on foot. In a remote corner of one square, a Gyumri company recently installed just three things: a park bench, a street lamp, and a seesaw.

According to the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, magic resulted. Kids flocked to the seesaw, parents in tow. Parents began to chat with each other. Soon street vendors set up stands next to the bench, drawing more people. Three tiny seeds had bloomed into a garden of street life. Any visitor entering that square would automatically gravitate toward the lively corner.

Modern cities abound in dead zones; some are even handsome. But it's people that make a town worth visiting. Nothing makes a town or city more appealing for tourists than lively, pedestrian-friendly streets and squares.

It's a lesson Europe seems to be learning, as city after city there has created car-free zones. In the ultra-motorized U.S.—despite success stories like San Antonio's riverwalk—cities have been slower to embrace the idea of streets that are more populated by people than by traffic. Yet all you need to do is set aside a few blocks and provide ways for people to do what people like to do—eat, drink, talk, play. Tourists show up. Businesses thrive.

As the Gyumri experiment shows, it doesn't take much to turn a square with nothing into a square with something. Bring on the seesaws.

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