Travel Column: Armenia’s Lesson in Street Life
National Geographic Traveler Magazine
September 17, 2004
By Jonathan B. Tourtellot
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
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.
Photo Caption: Men sit on a bench in Dilizhan, Armenia. In another
town, just such a streetscape is sprouting in a once barren plaza
(Photograph by George F. Mobley, copyright National Geographic
TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National
Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch
focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. Look for
TravelWatch every other Friday.