My first memory of Arcata is the Farmers Market. I had recently relocated to Humboldt from Chile and I was immediately drawn-in by the exuberance of the Plaza. It was a bustling, colorful, zany, diverse place—a place for people. But the Plaza is more than that. Seven years on, it’s the civic and economic hub of my life. It’s where I go Trick-or-Treating with my daughter, it’s where I stood in shocked silence as Donald Trump was inaugurated president. But I’ve learned something: at most times, on most days, the Plaza isn’t a place for people—it’s a place for cars.
Automotive presence on the Plaza cannot be overstated. The Arcata Plaza is often lauded for being one of the few “green plazas” in California, but the Plaza is 64 percent asphalt. The primary way to reach the Plaza is by car. The primary sounds you hear on the Plaza aren’t the voices of other people, but the sounds of traffic on nearby G and H Streets. By most civic standards, the sidewalks are narrow, and the sidewalks on the Plaza are recessed from the street to make room for abundant parking.
Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases (GHG) in California, accounting for over 37 percent of total emissions, and cars are largely to blame. If Arcata is serious about fighting climate change, it has to start challenging “autonormativity.” In fact, the city has already recognized the need to shift trips from cars to transit, biking, and walking in order to reduce these emissions, calling for a non-motorized modeshare of 50 percent in its Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan. A Plaza that is mostly a parking lot encourages people to drive and runs directly counter to these goals.
In addition, the Plaza’s design for cars is one of the primary reasons its underused on most days (when there’s not a market or a festival). Rows of parked cars and driving lanes break up the civic and social space. Currently, this creates a small, concentrated, and isolated location on 9th Street’s “bar row” where norms of public drinking and violence can take hold and incubate. Other potential users of the Plaza begin to feel uncomfortable, and a downward spiral ensues.
So for the past six months, the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP) has been developing a plan for a “Living Plaza.” We have talked with local business owners, non-profits, and other stakeholders and developed proposals that we hope will be part of an eventual solution.
Our Living Plaza concept is the following: first, remove all parking on 8th and 9th Streets, and close them to through traffic with bollards. Delivery and emergency vehicles will still be able to access buildings. In the newly available space, we can add infrastructure for outdoor dining and vending. Second, change G and H Streets to 5 mph “Pedestrian Priority Streets” that slow traffic down to human scale and entice shoppers to sit for a while on the Plaza. Third, expand the range of social offerings. There could be play structures for kids, art display areas, or a permanent performance venue. The options are endless, but the important thing is to find activities that attract people and to entice people out from behind the wheels of their cars.
The most commonly cited concern with our proposal is that removing parking could hurt local businesses. It is true that our proposals would remove about 50 spaces from the Plaza, which amounts to two percent of the parking in downtown Arcata. But far from hurting businesses, the lively environment created in this reclaimed public space would attract more people, which would mean more customers for shops and restaurants. Parking right in front of a store is a convenience, but local businesses just can’t compete with online retailers like Amazon in terms of convenience. Where local business can compete is in giving their customers a genuinely social experience.
For those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists, it is also important to face the fact that free parking is a major subsidy for the fossil fuel industry. Research shows that parking encourages driving, and the cost to build and maintain it is transferred to taxpayers and consumers whether they drive or not.
The Living Plaza concept will make a big stride toward a more social community while promoting civic life and helping our businesses grow. It will fight against climate change by promoting active transportation over single occupancy vehicles. It will help ensure that the bustling Plaza I first saw when I moved to Arcata is not just for special occasions, but the Plaza we see every day.
If you would like to join the movement advocating for a Living Plaza, sign on to our letter to the Arcata City Council at www.transportationpriorities.org. The initial deadline was November 30, but at the time EcoNews went to print this was expected to be extended. City Council is already scheduling meetings.
For more information, read CRTP’s June 2017 report, A Case for a Living Plaza in Arcata, online here: www.transportationpriorities.org/wp-content/