Capitals fans celebrate on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery outside the Capital One Arena.  Image by Mike Grinnell.

Haven't you heard? The Washington Capitals are in the finals! Even if you aren't a hockey fan, you can still get excited about how sports can add value to urban public spaces and allow us to experiment with our cities' design.

Caps community continues outside of the arena

The last time the Caps went to the finals (in 1998) was also the first year they played in the then-MCI Center, which moved the team into downtown Washington from Landover, Maryland. The Capitals now play in a very transit-friendly environment. It's so convenient that some players were seen taking the train to the game to beat traffic.

Of course, games that go late have also inspired the usual back and forth with WMATA. Metro's early closing hours mean routine mysteries as to who will pay for late-night service so fans can get home after the games. For the Stanley Cup games, MARC is running a “Stanley Cup Special” to help fans who use commuter rail to get home from the game.

Since the Capital One Arena is now directly on top of three Metro lines (and close to the rest of them,) it's a handy gathering place for crowds even when the Capitals are out of town. Now the team allows fans to come and watch the game on the jumbotron from the street for free when they're on the road.

GGWash contributor Mike Grinnell thought the move is great: “We often talking about creating equality, and this allows people that can't afford the minimum $800 to get in the door for the home games of the Stanley Cup [to watch]…In addition to the older hockey fans you might expect there was a large amount of younger millennial age spectators. These are people that might not have been able to get the Stanley Cup Experience with ticket prices as high as they are.”

You can feel that energy and community outside the arena when people spill out onto the streets in celebration. Next door is the Smithsonian's Portrait Gallery, and its outdoor steps on 7th Street have become an important gathering place for fans. It's an unexpected but great use of space. The steps have found new life as place for people to gather not only after games, but also during the day when food trucks are parked up the street.

Skating on the ice, walking in the streets

Of course, masses of fans out and about can overwhelm sidewalks. The Metropolitan Police Department had to close streets on the fly after the Game 7 win against Tampa Bay, and some regular streets are closed 24/7 between now and June 11. Events are popping up as excitement builds during the finals, including outdoor concerts and viewing parties for fans who couldn't get tickets for the game.

This is a special time for sports lovers, but events like this should excite urbanists too. Usually much of our space is dedicated to cars, and residents can have trouble imagining anything different. Sports-induced street closures can serve as experiments, demonstrating solutions that can become permanent.

Closures help people tangibly understand different possibilities for how we can use our streets. There are various options for 7th street, the major north/south route that's lined by dozens of bars and restaurants, as well as the Capital One Arena. For example, what if this street had more room for people walking and biking?

That's a hard sell to anyone who has sat through gridlock in a car on 7th Street, but it's easier to imagine when a sea of red jerseys takes over to celebrate going to the Stanley Cup finals. I can see a future where there are wider sidewalks and a pedestrian/transit zone (using the bus lanes on 7th), similar to the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado.

The 16th Street Mall in Denver allows buses but is otherwise closed to cars and lets pedestrians walk across the entire road.  Image by JCSullivan24 licensed under Creative Commons.

In fact, there was a pedestrian mall on F Street in front of the Portrait Gallery starting in the 1970s up until 1997, when it reopened to all traffic. (That's a warning to anyone who thinks you can put a pedestrian mall anywhere and find success.) In 1997 when the mall closed, the Capital One Arena was weeks away from opening. At the time there was much less activity than today, even on non-game days.

However, the new Palmer Alley in the nearby City Center development has proven to be a popular pedestrian street. Could that be another sign that reverting back to a pedestrian-dominated streetscape would be successful here? If we want to see how things might be done differently today, it's worth paying attention to these next few days — both inside and outside the arena.

Sports are a great way to unify a city and a region. Even in years when DC sports disappoint us (okay, that happens a lot), our support for the region's various teams are a great reminder that we have a lot of hometown pride — whether you were born here or have transplanted here. Now let's go Caps!

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.