Rolf Monheim, a consummate observer of city life and public space, is a retired professor of Applied Urban Geography at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on city centers — especially shopping and leisure streets, pedestrianization, traffic calming, transportation access strategies, parking issues and urban planning that promotes walking and cycling. Monheim is influential throughout Germany for his expertise on the design and management of vital and pedestrian-friendly city centers.
A Contemporary Placemaker
A longtime proponent of the principles of Placemaking, German born Monheim has worked since 1972 in Germany, Italy, Australia and other countries around the world, including advising PPS on projects in the U.S. He visited PPS offices in New York several times to give presentations on his work with pedestrian zones. During his last one-week stay in June 2007 he presented on the German cities of Nuremberg, Munich, and Regensburg, which helped PPS draft strategies toward pedestrianization and traffic calming in New York City. As the worldwide movement to improve walking and biking conditions spreads into American cities thanks to the work of local groups like the NYC Streets Renaissance, the ideas and techniques of Rolf Monheim and other streets visionaries will become increasingly relevant and influential in this country.
Although he has been studying issues of access, retail, and transportation in cities for more than 35 years, Rolf Monheim has received little large-scale recognition. But nonetheless his cutting-edge techniques have been extremely successful in aiding pedestrianization, parking reform, and cultural and economic revitalization in urban centers in Europe and Australia.
With research methodology based on extensive street-level pedestrian observations and preference surveys, Monheim’s techniques have been emulated by numerous other planners, governments, and academics. Thoroughness is a hallmark of his work – he and his diligent research teams survey and analyze pedestrian traffic data in great detail, sometimes spending years revisiting and studying not only a single town but multiple locales. Comparing data both for a single town over time and between several different towns over the same time period has given richness to his findings and observations. One important element in these comparisons is the possibility of benchmarking the performance of different city centers according to aspects like the activities of city center visitors, the duration of their visit and the distance walked as well as their assessment of the qualities of the urban environment.
PPS believes that Monheim’s successful research and techniques are a valuable model for boosting interest in Placemaking as a tool for improving many cities around the world.
Approaching his work with a strong focus and passion, Monheim has unearthed three groundbreaking themes which offer an overwhelming contribution to understanding activity and accessibility in city centers.
1. Large-scale pedestrian surveys offer a better understanding of how people use public spaces.
Much of Monheim’s influence in the fields of retail and recreation are due to his uniquely effective survey and analysis techniques. Using preference-based questionnaires collected in a wide range of urban environments under differing conditions, Professor Monheim offers astonishingly insightful results and a greater overall understanding of the intricate links between pedestrian accessibility, transportation options, and viability of large-scale retail activity in urban centers. The technique of actually asking people questions can add important information to traditional methods of measuring activity in downtown centers, like pedestrian and traffic counts or retail analysis.
2. Pedestrian streets show great value for improving a city center
The clear result of Monheim’s extensive research has made him a leading advocate of pro-pedestrian policies in city centers as one of the best ways to boost the vitality and economic activity of a downtown. He advocates establishing pedestrian precincts, which are networks of connected streets and squares that have limited or no vehicular traffic. In several cities, the precincts span 5-10 km, or approximately 3-6 miles. Good examples can be found in Aachen, Bonn, Bremen, Cologne, Freiburg, Hanover, Munich, Nuremberg, Regensburg and Trier. These comfortable places are usually home to a large concentration of retail shopping, restaurants, and cultural destinations, and attract tourists and city residents alike for a variety of uses. His research in Munich and Nuremberg, Germany, showcased prime examples of successful pedestrian precincts, which inspired other German cities to see the potential for healthy retail, quality public spaces, and overall improvement that pedestrianization offers an urban center.
3. Traffic calming and parking management are essential to the vitality of city centers
The problem and potential of accessibility in city centers is another area where Professor Monheim’s unique perspectives have made an impact, giving all of us a greater understanding of what goes on in an urban space. He has tackled issues of traffic, pedestrian safety, and economic performance with a street-level survey approach, rather than relying on government data to predict visitor preferences. Monheim’s pedestrian surveys have been designed to measure levels of satisfaction by visitors who are walking, riding, biking, or driving in a city, in relation to the amenities and urban layout of the area. He advocates extensive traffic calming in city centers, including creation of traffic zones that allow vehicle movement into and within specified zones but never through the city or across zone boundaries. Monheim’s research has also promoted an understanding of the balance and connections between safe, accessible, walkable cities and a higher level of satisfaction and participation by city visitors.
4. Integration of new shopping centers into traditional city centers
In contrast to America, where shopping centers traditionally have been established in suburbia, in Germany most of them have been located within city or district centers (except in East-Germany during the first five years after Reunification). Actually, the momentum of this trend is even growing, resulting in controversial discussions on the effects for the model of the traditional ‘European City’. The answers can be given from different perspectives: shopkeepers, landlords, politicians, planners or visitors. Professor Monheim, again, uses his surveys among the latter for getting a better understanding how the visitors react on this new opportunity. One important contribution to the success of shopping centers is their highly professional management – an aspect mostly lacking in traditional shopping streets. From this results the necessity for placemaking initiatives bringing together all parties involved in the process of branding a given location as a focal point for the local community.
5. Understanding how issues collectively contribute to successful urban centers
Much of Monheim’s work has tied together all of these perspectives, with the aim of creating a greater understanding of what makes a city center functional, accessible, enjoyable, and economically feasible. For example, in pedestrian surveys of five German towns (Regensburg, Lubek, Nuremberg, Bremen, and Munich) over 4 years (1996-2000), Monheim noted positive correlations between the presence of pedestrian precincts and accessibility and the level of retail and leisure activities that took place there. Visitors to cities with a greater emphasis on pedestrian precincts, traffic calming, and alternative forms of transportation were more satisfied with their experience of the city, engaged in more activities, and encouraged city vitality.