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Cycling / cycling infrastructure / Public Spaces

Taking Back Streets for The People, State Street, Santa Barbara: From Covid Measure to Permanent Fixture?

Michael Dyblie is an International Intern at Mobycon and Master’s Student at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in the Urban Ecological Planning program. His interests span a wide range of topics in urban planning and design, from participatory planning, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, the 15-minute city, etc.

Since I began my journey into the world of urban planning, design, and policy a few years back, one project in particular solidified my interest and helped me realize that this could be a viable and worthy career path: the State Street Promenade in Santa Barbara, California.

On May 28, 2020, the City of Santa Barbara closed off several blocks of State Street to vehicular traffic in order to provide residents a safe way to enjoy the outdoors and local businesses a way to operate while social distancing.

I think what made this initiative so impactful for me was my proximity. At the time, I was living in the Santa Barbara area as a recent college graduate in a new, pandemic-filled reality, with plenty of time to contemplate what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Now, I have been living in Europe for almost 2 years, started a master’s in urban planning, and begun this internship here at Mobycon- and Santa Barbara is drafting plans to make the State Street Promenade permanent. My experience has granted me new perspective on the ongoing project: How could Dutch principles be applied and translated into this context? Does the current or any future iterations of street follow the framework of ‘The Good Street? Could Mobycon potentially serve as an asset to help with some of the promenade’s ongoing challenges?

Figure 1. Downtown State Street now features in-street dining and more “temporary” space for pedestrians (Source: Joshua Molina – Noozhawk, 2020)

The Rundown

What started simply as an emergency Covid relief measure has now morphed into a staple fixture of Santa Barbara. Residents, businesses, and tourists alike loved the new people-focused face to State Street, and they made their newfound appreciation for the area known through phone calls, emails to city council, advocating for these changes to remain. This outpouring of public enthusiasm led to the creation of the State Street Advisory Committee, a 15-person group consisting of members of, the city council, the planning and historic landmarks commission, business leaders, and local community advocates.

Figure 2. Initial roll-out of a State Street master plan with the creation of new bike lanes, addition of urban furniture, and sturdier planter boxes (Source: Grayce McCormick – Santa Barbara News-Press, 2021)

The Challenges

Despite its popularity though, the final iteration of the master plan is still years away, and the complaints have been plenty. The biggest sticking points: managing shared space between cyclists and pedestrians, and controversies surrounding the amount of public-space being utilized for outdoor dining. Some have also advocated for allowing car traffic to return to parts of the corridor.

These debates remind me of Mobycon’s concept of Good Street. The debate happening around State Street is essentially one of balancing a sense of place and flow.

Figure 3. State Street Corridor – Team A, Civic Centre/Old Town area proposal (Source: AIA Santa Barbara – Design Charrette, 2020)

Conclusions

Overwhelming public support alone is not enough to secure a sustainable future for State Street. How the city deals with these challenges affects not only the viability of the State Street Promenade, but also similar Open Streets projects in the future. I hope that by bringing these stories more into the limelight and sharing our vast array of knowledge, organizations like Mobycon can help create better urban spaces for everyone, and that endeavors like the State Street Promenade go from novelty to norm.

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