Hidden Assets: Creating public spaces in unlikely places
If there is any one lesson that I have learned in my life as a city planner, it is that public spaces have power. It's not just the number of people using them, it's the even greater number of people who feel better about their city just knowing that they are there. — Amanda Burden, former New York City Planning Commissioner
In the late 1990s, the raised railway track that ran through the heart of New York City’s Chelsea district was the bane of many residents’ existence. The monolithic iron structure hadn’t carried rail traffic since 1980, when the last train delivered three carloads of frozen Thanksgiving turkeys to the meatpacking district. Since then it had sat unused by anyone but unruly trespassers and was falling deeper into disrepair each year. Mayor Rudy Guliani vowed to demolish it.
He didn’t succeed, of course. Instead, after years of advocacy by a dedicated community group (along with hundreds of millions of dollars committed by Guliani’s successor Michael Bloomberg, the federal and state governments, private donors and other sources) the structure was converted into a 2.3 kilometre-long promenade and is known today as one of the world’s greatest public space success stories: the Highline Park.
Even for New York City the Highline Park was a large and complex undertaking in both cost and scale. But its fame has made it the poster child of a notion that is, at long last, gaining traction around the world in cities of all sizes: our cities are full of underutilized spaces that, if put to better use, could make the public realm greater for everyone. This is especially critical in a time when there is a greater need for more and better public spaces in our cities than ever, and budgets are ever tighter. We have assets everywhere — we just need to look at our cities a little differently to see them.
A ‘barometer’ of quality of life
Parks and public spaces are the verandas of city life. They are where we live amongst each other. They are where we experience our cities. It is our public spaces that make our cities more than just a collection of buildings and spaces in between them — they make them places. Even if one lives in the tiniest apartment or the most dilapidated house, everyone’s quality of life is impacted when a city has great parks to serve as front yards and public spaces as living rooms.
As Chief of Staff of the Chicago parks district Gia Biagi put it at the Doable City Forum, “Parks are the barometer for public life in a city. When you look at a city, go look at its parks — as many as you can of different varieties — and you’ll get a sense of where that city is at in terms of development and quality of life.”
And they are levers in nearly every aspect of the well-being of city dwellers. Physically speaking, improving access to quality parks and public spaces drastically increases people’s likelihood of physical activity and reduces air pollution. But many studies have also shown that parks and public space access have a drastic effect on mental health and community cohesion. Exposure to nature immediately reduces our stress, gives us energy and enhances our mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance. Other studies have shown that views of nature make us more generous. In a Chicago public housing complex, residents with direct access to green community spaces were more likely to report feeling a sense of belonging, know their neighbours and consider those neighbours supportive and friendly. Those without green space access were more likely to be rude, lose their tempers and commit crimes. As Charles Montgomery summarizes in Happy City, “Nature is not merely good for us. It brings out the good in us.”
Public space hidden in plain sight
The idea of creating more public spaces and parks can sometimes seem daunting with high land costs and low city budgets. But cities don’t always need to buy land to start creating new parks, or tear down buildings to create more public spaces. Our cities have far more public space than we often think. By looking at what we already have and imagining it differently, every city can afford to start right away.
Consider that 25 to 30 per cent of the total area of our cities is taken up by publicly-owned roads alone. Many parking spaces and lots are public too, as well as our sidewalks, school grounds, public buildings and swaths of land below raised rail lines, overpasses or other pieces of infrastructure. They may all be managed by different departments, but at the end of the day they all belong to and are paid for by taxpayers. And together they make up an enormous percentage of the city’s area.
But much of this space is inaccessible to much of the population. Schools and school grounds are only open to students during the day and are often locked once school closes. The road network that makes up 80 per cent of public land in most cities is only accessible to citizens that are operating cars or sitting on buses. Entire strips of roadway that hug our sidewalks exist for the sole purpose of temporarily storing vehicles. Public buildings close at 5 pm and vacant lots — whether publicly or privately owned — sit empty for years before they are developed.
Seizing the opportunities
It doesn’t need to be like that. Many cities of all sizes are beginning to transform these assets into opportunities, using them to carve out room for great public space in the heart of even the densest neighbourhoods.
Take, for example, Melbourne, Australia. A unique planning history left the city’s downtown with two distinct grids: one of major streets and one of narrow laneways that run between the buildings. While other cities with similar laneway systems use the laneways mostly for garbage disposal, Melbourne has allowed the back-end rooms of the buildings facing the main street to be converted into tiny bars, restaurants and shops that front onto the laneways, transforming the tiny thoroughfares into a richly woven network of pedestrian-only spaces.
Similarly, the leisurely and enjoyable experience of walking through central Copenhagen comes in large part from the number of streets the city has slowly, decade by decade, converted from auto-centric thoroughfares to dedicated pedestrian spaces starting in the early 1960s. By the end of the decade, the city had already begun to change as a result, with outdoor cafes arriving in the chilly Scandinavian city for the first time, and a culture of liveliness and public gathering in the newly opened spaces.
“Streets are the most underutilized assets in cities,” says Jeff Risom of Gehl Architects, the firm responsible for much of Copenhagen’s radical transformation. He also points to New York as an example of a city that has recently begun changing this dramatically in its own way by finding unused bits of roadway — unnecessary slip lanes, intersections, too-wide turning lanes, etc. — closing them off to cars and extending the adjacent sidewalks to create a network of miniature public spaces sprinkled all throughout the city. If you ever doubt your city has room to do the same, take a look at your street when it snows and the patterns will likely reveal that your street space is considerably less utilized than you think.
Sometimes all it takes to unlock these resources is simple communication. McAllen, a city of about 130,000 in southern Texas instantly increased its public park space by hundreds of acres by working more closely with the school board to upgrade school playgrounds and develop protocol to leave the fields and facilities unlocked after school hours. New York City later did the same as part of PlaNYC to help reach its goal of having every New Yorker live within a five to ten minute walk of a park by 2030. They added a whopping 290 new parks to the city through the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program.
Many cities in North America have done the same and continue to do so, showing over and over again that the space for place is always there – it just takes a little imagination to find it.
This chapter is available as a PDF: Download a copy.
Lede image credit: NYC DOT
A program dubbed Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk invites residents of the city to submit poems to be displayed as permanent public art. Some of those poems are selected by a judging panel and imprinted into the new concrete that is being poured. Replacing broken sidewalks is part of the regular maintenance regime of any city. But since 2008, the city of St. Paul, Minnesota has turned this mundane task into an engine for infusing the everyday lives of its residents with meaningful public art.
St. Paul artist-in-residence Marcus Young conceived of this unique program. As artist-in-residence, Young does not work for the city, but rather is embedded inside it. He came up with the idea one day when he joined the city sidewalk inspector on a routine walk to learn about the day-to-day ins and outs of her job. Young knew he didn’t want to use his time with the city to put up just one big sculpture. “I was really looking to affect the system but I wanted to tackle a system that was a little bit unassuming… a bit underutilized,” Young said.
He said his dedicated role within the city is key to making this possible. Because he is embedded in the department, the process of creating public art is deeply integrated with the process of creating the city, instead of coming as an afterthought. That means being able to streamline art right into actions that need to happen anyway, like pouring fresh concrete onto sidewalks. His fresh and unique set of eyes see opportunity for public art everywhere — even the sewers, though it hasn’t gone quite that far yet.
“I was able to find a soft spot where I could really learn one system of the city, not be a burden to anybody and propose something where I felt there was room for creativity that had been overlooked,” he said.
The project is seen as a win all around. In times when the use of taxpayer money is always scrutinized, it’s an affordable way to plentifully populate the city with public art. Most citizens love it — the city gets over 100 submissions of poetry every year and frequently gets calls from people requesting poems outside of their house. (If they don’t like it, citizens have the right to request that a poem not be put outside their house). And perhaps most poignantly, the public works department, often pegged as the bad guy who hasn’t fixed the potholes fast enough, now receives calls complimenting the poetry.
Hear Young speak more about the project in the videos below and learn more about the program here.
In 2007, New York City was faced with a parks crisis. The city had fewer acres of green space per person than almost any other major US city. More than 2.5 million residents had inadequate access to park space. Playgrounds were deeply overburdened, with 97 of the city’s 188 city neighbourhoods supporting more than 1250 children per playground. And it was set to get worse: given the rate of population growth, the city estimated that 50 neighbourhoods would have less than 1.5 acres of open space per thousand people by 2030.
So when New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his goal to ensure that by 2030 every single New Yorker would live within a ten-minute walk from a park, the idea seemed preposterously ambitious — impossible, even.
But by April 2013, the number of New Yorkers with immediate access to a park had already increased by a whopping 500,000. In 2007, 97 neighbourhoods did not meet the New York City standard for adequate playground capacity; by 2011, when the statistic was last updated, that number had halved.
Where, in one of the densest cities in the world, did all this new public green space come from? It turns out it had been there all along, just waiting to be unlocked.
Before Bloomberg’s big announcement, the city had already identified schoolyards as deeply under-utilized resources; used only a few hours per day, and only by the school population. The rest of the time — weekends, evenings and summers, most schoolyards were fenced and locked to the surrounding communities.
The parks department conducted a survey that identified 290 schoolyards located in areas with park and playground deficits. The Bloomberg administration directed $111 million to improve the facilities. In some cases, the schoolyards were adequate — the gates simply needed to be unlocked. In most cases, the city needed to upgrade or install equipment, paint or seal pavement and improve landscaping and plant trees. In extreme cases, they also needed to do major upgrades like repaving and safety improvements. The city also allocated $14.5 million annually to reimburse the schools $50,000 each for ongoing maintenance costs by the school custodian. The Trust for Public Land also contributed $8.5 million, and managed the participatory design process. These parks are now open Monday through Friday from school close until dusk, and Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 8 a.m. until dusk.
Cities of all sizes have implemented similar programs. Back in the early 1990s, McAllen, Texas — which now has a population of about 130,000 — implemented a similar School Parks program. Today, all elementary school playgrounds are open to the public, as well as four junior high schools and one high school, with which the city also shares tennis courts. Michelle Obama has since recognized McAllen schools as setting a healthy standard.
Gil Peñalosa worked with the City of McAllen to help make this program happen. He says the same concept needs to expand to cover more public facilities.
“We need to develop different standards in how we measure efficiency in the use of the parks, efficiency in the use of sports facilities and community centres and so on,” he says. “It is not just school parks, but in general to be sustainable we need to share facilities. All over the U.S. and Canada, the school boards and the municipalities fight each other like cats and dogs, which is crazy. As with everything, people always say that it’s hard, it’s difficult. The school boards always say the municipalities are very stubborn and the municipalities say the school boards are stubborn. The reality is that people always think that it is hard. And it is, that’s why it hasn’t happened before. If it was easy maybe it would have happened before. But the reality is that everything is doable.”
Learn more about the NYC Schoolyards to Playgrounds program here.
The city of Miami has long struggled to expand its park space. Now, a group of creative citizens has found a potential solution, hidden in plain sight. If Meg Daly and her friends have their way, Miami will soon boast a ten mile-long linear park — without the city having to purchase a single square foot of land.
The name of the project: the Underline. Like a ground-level sister to New York’s Highline, and Chicago’s 606, the park would stretch continuously beneath the Miami Metrorail, the city’s elevated rapid transit line.
Daly had the idea for the Underline (previously called the Green Link) one summer, when she broke both her arms in a cycling accident. She began taking the Metrorail frequently to her physiotherapy appointments, and walking the last leg of the trip beneath the rail lines. “As I walked, I was astounded that there was so much land underneath Metrorail. Even though it was the dead of summer, I could walk comfortably in the shade of the train tracks. The opportunity was obvious,” she wrote in the Miami Herald.
Studies performed for Friends of the Underline, the non-profit Daly helped launch to pursue the project, found that the park would provide 400,000 residents of Miami new green space within a half-mile walk of their home. Plus, it would provide an estimated $800 million economic impact annually, including increasing property values of land next to the Metrolink, which is currently worth less than nearby plots due to its location.
Daly and the Friends of the Underline have recently garnered the support of the city’s parks department and, as of summer 2014, $2 million in committed funding from donors, including the Knight Foundation.
Top image: the proposed route of the Underline. Courtesy of the Friends of the Underline
Less than a decade ago, the idea of a city closing its streets to vehicles and opening them for the public to enjoy car-free every Sunday was considered radical. In 2007, only about 10 North American cities dared to have such programs—known as Open Streets in North America, or Ciclovías in Latin America—that temporarily turn streets into paved parks where people can run, walk, cycle or participate in exercise programs. Today, there are over 100 on the continent, from megacities like New York and LA to small towns. And each year the number grows.
Helping cities get Open Streets programs off the ground is a big part of what 8 80 Cities does, because it is something that any city can do immediately. Executive Director Gil Peñalosa, who founded the Open Streets movement in Bogota in the early 2000s, says that he originally took his inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, who created New York’s Central Park for the purpose of bringing communities together—a principle that Peñalosa continues to see at the heart of Open Streets programs.
“160 years ago he was writing how in New York, everybody hated everybody. The rich and the poor and the immigrants and the blacks and the whites, and he said: ‘Look, people don’t know each other! They don’t live in the same buildings; their children don’t go to the same schools; they get sick they don’t go to the same doctor! We need to find a place where people can meet each other as equals.’ One of the things I find so exciting about the Ciclovía is that it’s like an exercise in social integration. It’s like a Central Park, except that it’s something that every city around the world can have,” he said.
In part, Open Streets are a means to an end: a way to help people envision their cities and streets differently, to take ownership of them as public places and experience their cities differently. But there’s more to it than that. Many cities pursue Open Streets for the sake of other goals, most notably public health. And, studies show, they have good reason. As 8 80 Cities Program Director Emily Monroe points out, in cities where Open Streets happen regularly, they can be a goal in and of themselves for this purpose.
“I would challenge anybody to show us a recreational program that has the level of participation like the Ciclovías in Bogota and Guadalajara. Every single Sunday you have people out being physically active for between one and two hours. That’s a million people every Sunday participating in an exercise class. There’s nothing I can think of that works like that. I think that once they reach a certain point, a certain frequency, a certain length, a certain amount of participation that they do act as an end in themselves.”
As written in C3’s recent meta-review, “The Benefits of Regular Walking for Health”:
“A review of 38 ciclovías found that they have real potential for positive public‐health outcomes, summarising the evidence to date – which is limited, but encouraging. For example, one study found an estimated 41 per cent of Ciclovía participants in Bogota took part for more than three hours (including about a third walking or running, and about half the participants cycling). A study of health‐related quality of life measures found that adults participating in at least one day of the Ciclovía each month scored higher than those who did not participate (even after adjusting for sociodemographic and other factors), and one study showed that levels of particulate matter along a section of Bogota’s Ciclovía street was 13 times higher on a weekday than on Sunday (the day of the Ciclovía). The health benefits of the Ciclovías have recently been evaluated – with the cost–benefit ratio for health benefit from physical activity estimated at 3.23–4.26 for Bogotá, 1.83 for Medellín (also in Colombia), 1.02– 1.23 for Guadalajara (Mexico) and 2.32 for San Francisco.”
Just because any city can have an Open Streets program, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. Like with any change, Munroe says, getting the political will and support of the business community can be tough, and the logistics of implementation daunting. But, she notes, it’s been proven again and again to be possible, pointing out that Open Streets Toronto—a program administered in part by 8 80 Cities—happened under the city’s most blatently unsupportive and right wing Mayor, Rob Ford, thanks in large part to the extreme support of several Business Improvement Asssociations.
Peñalosa says that many the programs that currently exist could still stand to be improved. “Too many people see it as an event. It’s not an event it’s really a program. It’s not something you do once a year like if it was Canada Day or the Fourth of July in the States, but it’s something you should be doing every Sunday,” he said. But the resources are increasingly available for cities to make this happen.
In 2012 the Open Streets Project produced a report on Open Streets projects throughout North America, which provides case studies and background to the Open Streets movement in North America, and this spring 8 80 Cities will release a comprehensive toolkit that will help communities implement programs in their own cities.
There are plenty of examples of how under-utilized public spaces can be transformed into vibrant community amenities like parks and gardens. But there are also some unique examples of how private property can be maximized to meet a city’s needs, while benefitting the landowners as well, and for more than just creating parks and public spaces.
In 2009, Vancouver, British Columbia introduced a laneway housing program in response to the city’s desperate need for more affordable rental housing. The program enables single-family homeowners to build detached mini-houses in their backyards, where they would usually only have a garage or shed. The houses, which back onto the laneway, cannot be sold separately from the house but may be rented out or occupied by family members.
The program was part of a larger city-wide initiative dubbed Ecodensity, which encouraged higher density design and mixed land-use to support a more walkable and transit-friendly city. Much of the response to this initiative had come in the form of residential towers built in the downtown core. But things were trickier in the rest of the city, comprised mostly of tightly-packed single-family homes and neighbourhoods that wouldn’t suit tower development. The bylaw amendments that enabled the program to take place were initially rolled out in only a few neighbourhoods, then expanded to cover most of the city. By summer of 2014, five years after the program began, more than 1,300 laneway housing permits had been handed out — equivalent to over one million square feet of additional rental space dispersed throughout the city at no cost to the government and with little to no visible impact on the feel and scale of their neighbourhoods. Laneway houses are so popular in the city that several boutique architecture firms specializing in their design have popped up in the city.
Vancouver city planner Jane Pickering said one of the keys to the program’s success was working closely with the builders as things unfolded to accommodate their unique design challenges. The city developed new building bylaw amendments to address neighbours’ concerns without hamstringing the builders. Most of the neighbours’ concerns, for example, revolved around privacy — they didn’t like that the residents of the laneway homes could see into their backyards next door or across the laneway. In response, the city changed the rules around where windows could be located on the houses, and created a number of new options and incentives for people to build single-level laneway houses, instead of the two-level buildings that had been popular before that. This included expanding the allowed square footage on the bottom floor, for instance, and also encouraged more age-friendly designs and options for those with mobility issues.
“It’s not easy to go into existing neighbourhoods and put more housing in there,” says Pickering, “but it’s important to do that and to do it in a very compatible way.”
Find more information about Vancouver’s laneway housing guidelines here.
Top image and laneway house design by Lanefab.
Of all cities, one would hardly think of hyper-dense New York as one with hundreds of thousands of extra square feet sitting around, ready to be turned into public plazas. But since 2008, they’ve done just that.
They didn’t do it all at once by knocking down buildings to create a grand new public square. Rather, they found dozens of pieces of under-performing or unnecessary roadway (such as unneeded slip lanes or wide turns) throughout the city, and filled it in bit by bit with pedestrian right of way—a couple thousand square feet at a time.
Requiring mostly just paint, planters or decorative bollards to separate the space from traffic, and a bit of street furniture, the projects are relatively simple and cheap to produce—they take up a total of about one percent of the NYC Department of Transportation’s capital budget.
But perhaps most importantly, it distributes the fruits of those resources more evenly throughout the city. Instead of concentrating resources by blowing the budget on one major project that is only within short walking distance of a few thousand residents, the New York plazas program ekes out spaces all throughout the city, making more public space available to more people.
One of the ways the city makes it possible to continue the program is by partnering with community groups to share both the benefits and the responsibilities. The city now has a process by which non-profit organizations can apply to create plazas in the city. If selected, the DOT will fund the design and construction of the plaza, but the non-profit is responsible for the community outreach that assists the design process, funding and managing the maintenance of the space, providing insurance for the space and keeping it vibrant with programming such as markets, art installations and public events. Applications are selected based on a number of criteria including how needed open public space is in the community, and low or moderate-income neighborhoods are given priority.
Melbourne, Australia is home to one of the most renowned and vibrant street cultures in the world. But it wasn’t always like this. Up until the late 1980s Melbourne suffered from the same ailment many North American cities grapple with today. Suburban growth had hollowed out the downtown core, leaving it a deserted no-man’s land outside business hours. As famed city planner Jan Gehl once described it, “It was neutron-bombed, not a soul – not even a cat.”
The secret of the city’s rapid rebirth lies in the least expected of places: its unique grid of tiny, 10 meter-wide back alley laneways. Where they exist in other cities (albeit usually wider), laneways are rarely considered viable public spaces. More often they are associated with garbage disposal and drug dealing than pedestrian culture.
But Melbourne saw its laneways as an opportunity for transformation and, throughout the 1990s, developed them into a rich network of intimate pedestrian-only thoroughfares lined with small restaurants, bars and shops. As a result, downtown Melbourne now boasts twice the number of evening pedestrians as it did in 1990, twelve times more outdoor cafes (in 1990 it had less than 50, now it has more than 600) and even, correspondingly, the highest ratio of street furniture per person in the world. Today Swanston Street draws more pedestrians per day than Regent Street in London.
A number of key policy changes led to Melbourne’s laneway revolution, including changes to the Central Business District that brought more jobs and permanent residents to the downtown core to frequent businesses; design rules prohibiting buildings from having long, blank façades, which led to more small-scale and diverse commercial spaces; and importantly, changes to the city’s liquor regulations that removed the requirement for bars to serve food and led to the creation of the considerably cheaper “small bar” licence. Melbourne’s laneways and inner-city streets hosted exactly the sort of small, low-cost spaces (originally the back of house for main street businesses) suited for these licences, which led to the proliferation of unique and offbeat niche venues.
Craig Allchin, a Melbourne architect and designer who opened one of Melbourne’s first and defining laneway bars on a lean $25,000 budget notes that the most important thing the city did was reimagine what the otherwise barely-used spaces could be: a place for small-scale pedestrian life and experimentation.
It’s a notion that cities can transfer to other parts of the urban fabric, although, as Allchin notes in an interview with Broadsheet, “you can’t cut and paste a solution from one city to another because all cities have different morphologies and politics.” He notes that in Sydney, which doesn’t have the same laneway grid, they applied the same concept to unused basement spaces, an example of the type of creative adaptation necessary to transfer good ideas to different contexts.
“[Developers] travel the world and say, ‘We like the plaza in Copenhagen so we’ll take some of that; we like the pier in San Francisco and the pedestrian mall in Vienna and we’ll take some of those too; and we like the Melbourne laneways.’ They throw it all together on a master plan, hoping to create a quirky, hip, and high-rent retail and pedestrian area. But the result doesn’t perform like any of the examples, and tends to feel like a regular mall, because it’s all under one ownership. The truth is, there is no absolute formula,” he says.
Top image credit: 8 80 Cities
Sole Food Street Farms is an organization in Vancouver, British Columbia that transforms vacant lots in the city into street farms that grow fruits and vegetables, which are sold at farmer’s markets and to local restaurants and retail outlets. The land the farms occupy is often awaiting development by the private owner, so they have worked with the city to develop creative leases that provide land owners with tax incentives as well as farming practices that guarantee they can and will move on short notice.
Learn more about Sole Food here.
Jon Geeting from This Old City created the term “Sneckdown” – a combination of “snow” and “neckdown” (another name for a curb expansion) – to describe the underutilized spaces that appear in cities when it snows.
Clarence Eckerson Jr. from Streetfilms makes the point that not only do they reveal underutilized space, but also show the effectiveness of the traffic calming devices that could be modeled from their patterns.
As a result, downtown Melbourne is home to a particularly efficient and complex waste collection system.
Melbourne’s scheme of alternating wide roads and narrow laneways was originally conceived by Robert Hoddle, a British Surveyor who migrated to Australia in the 1820s, where he plotted out many of the emerging colony’s first towns.
The grid plan that he drew up for Melbourne, with main streets one and a half chains wide (30 m — wide enough for a bullock cart to turn right without blocking traffic) and laneways a half chain wide (10 m — just wide enough to be used to service the back of the shops), creating 10 chain square (1 acre) blocks, was created for the sole purpose of easily and efficiently selling off narrow rectangular pieces of land. It is known today as Hoddle’s Grid.
There are well over 100 million passenger cars in the United States of America (136,000,000 in 2007). UCLA Urban Planning Professor Dr. Donald Shoup notes in his book The High Cost of Free Parking (which garnered such a cult following it was printed in second edition and bore a robust Facebook following of groupies that call themselves the Shoupistas) that these cars are parked 96 percent of the time. He says that free parking does all of us a disservice, including the people driving. Pricing parking correctly, he says, at “the right price is the lowest price you can charge and still have one or two spaces available on each block” can make cities better for everyone.
Project for Public Spaces is a New York-based nonprofit organization that has worked in cities around the world helping people create and sustain great public spaces since 1975. Of public streets, they write:
“While streets were once a place where we stopped for conversation and children played, they are now the exclusive domain of cars. Even where sidewalks are present along highways and high-speed streets, they feel inhospitable and out of place. Traffic and road capacity are not the inevitable result of growth. They are the product of very deliberate choices that have been made to shape our communities around the private automobile. We have the ability to make different choices–starting with the decision to design our streets as comfortable places for people…
Not so long ago, this idea was considered preposterous in many communities. ‘Public space’ meant parks and little else. Transit stops were simply places to wait. Streets had been surrendered to traffic for so long that we hardly considered them to be public spaces at all. But now we are slowly getting away from this narrow perception of ‘streets as conduits for cars’ and beginning to think of ‘streets as places.’
The road, the parking lot, the transit terminal—these places can serve more than one mode (cars) and more than one purpose (movement). Sidewalks are the urban arterials of cities—make them wide, well lit, stylish and accommodating with benches, outdoor cafes and public art. Roads can be shared spaces with pedestrian refuges, bike lanes, and on-street parking. Parking lots can become public markets on weekends. Even major urban arterials can be designed to provide for dedicated bus lanes, well-designed bus stops that serve as gathering places, and multi-modal facilities for bus rapid transit or other forms of travel. Roads are places too!
Transportation—the process of going to a place—can be wonderful if we rethink the idea of transportation itself. If we remember that transportation is the journey, but enhancing the community is always our goal.
10 Qualities of a Great Street
PPS has identified ten qualities that, in conjunction with the principles described above, contribute to the success of great streets.
• Attractions & Destinations. Having something to do gives people a reason to come to a place—and to return again and again. When there is nothing to do, a space will remain empty, which can lead to other problems. In planning attractions and destinations, it is important to consider a wide range of activities for: men and women, people of different ages, different times of day, week and year, and for people alone and in groups. Create an enticing path by linking together this variety of experiences.
• Identity & Image. Whether a space has a good image and identity is key to its success. Creating a positive image requires keeping a place clean and well-maintained, as well as fostering a sense of identity. This identity can originate in showcasing local assets. Businesses, pedestrians, and drivers will then elevate their behavior to this vision and sense of place.
• Active Edge Uses. Buildings’ bases should be human-scaled and allow for interaction between indoors and out. Preferably, there are active ground floor uses that create valuable experiences along a street for both pedestrians and motorists. For instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Sidewalk activity also serves to slow vehicular traffic. At the very minimum, the edge connection should be visual, allowing passers-by to enjoy the activity and aesthetics of the indoor space. These edge uses should be active year-round and unite both sides of the street.
• Amenities. Successful streets provide amenities to support a variety of activities. These include attractive waste receptacles to maintain cleanliness, street lighting to enhance safety, bicycle racks, and both private and public seating options—the importance of giving people the choice to sit where they want is generally underestimated. Cluster street amenities to support their use.
• Management. An active entity that manages the space is central to a street’s success. This requires not only keeping the space clean and safe, but also managing tenants and programming the space to generate daily activity. Events can run the gamut from small street performances to sidewalk sales to cultural, civic or seasonal celebrations.
• Seasonal Strategies. In places without a strong management presence or variety of activities, it is often difficult to attract people year-round. Utilize seasonal strategies, like holiday markets, parades and recreational activities to activate the street during all times of the year. If a street offers a unique and attractive experience, weather is often less of a factor than people initially assume.
• Diverse User Groups. As mentioned previously, it is essential to provide activities for different groups. Mixing people of different race, gender, age, and income level ensures that no one group dominates the space and makes others feel unwelcome and out of place.
• Traffic, Transit & the Pedestrian. A successful street is easy to get to and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close. Accessible spaces have high parking turnover and, ideally, are convenient to public transit and support walking and biking. Access and linkages to surrounding destinations must be a part of the planning process. Automobile traffic cannot dominate the space and preclude the comfort of other modes. This is generally accomplished by slowing speeds and sharing street space with a range of transportation options.
• Blending of Uses and Modes. Ground floor uses and retail activities should spill out into the sidewalks and streets to blur the distinction between public and private space. Shared street space also communicates that no one mode of transportation dominates.
• Neighborhood Preservation. Great streets support the context around them. There should be clear transitions from commercial streets to nearby residential neighborhoods, communicating a change in surroundings with a concomitant change in street character.”
To read more about PPS’s work around the world and evolving ideas about public space, follow their Placemaking blog.