“The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.” –William H. Whyte
Streets account for as much as a third of the land in a city, and historically, they served as public spaces for social and economic exchanges. Under the planning policies of the past 70 years, however, people have for all intents and purposes given up their rights to this public property. While streets were once a place where we stopped for conversation and children played, they are now more the domain of cars than people. Even where sidewalks are present along highways and high-speed streets, they feel inhospitable and out of place.
Ironically, the single minded pursuit of creating efficiency for the automobile travel has also failed to successfully address transportation issues, as sprawling land use patterns and traffic congestion continue to grow exponentially despite new roadway mileage that generally outpaces population growth.
Which goes to show that, as PPS has long said, “If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” We have the ability to make different choices—starting with the decision to design our streets as comfortable places for people.
To broaden the perception of streets as places for people and activity, PPS has recently undertaken a major initiative called “Streets as Places.” The goals of this effort are to encourage communities to reclaim their streets as gathering spaces and to help transform the policies and practices of the transportation industry that currently favor and prioritize movement of vehicles over people and community. Through ongoing research, advocacy, training, and tool development, we will continue to inspire and organize citizens, policy makers, and transportation practitioners to reshape streets into places that provide greater economic vitality and more opportunities for civic engagement, as well as promoting the priorities of human health and environmental sustainability.
To achieve these benefits, every community needs at least one great street that attracts residents and visitors alike, whether it is a beautiful boulevard, a Main Street, or along the waterfront. Through its “Streets as Places” initiative, PPS is advocating a dramatic paradigm shift from conventional transportation planning that focuses almost exclusively on mobility to a process that prioritizes community benefits and recognizes transportation as a means of building the kinds of places we all cherish.
The “Streets as Places” philosophy approaches the planning and design of streets holistically, working to integrate many elements of the street environment to create vital places where people not only feel safe and comfortable, but also experience a sense of ownership and community. Placemaking emphasizes designing streets for people, not just modes of transportation. Street life and outdoor activities make a place lively, an outcome that a streetscape project alone cannot achieve. Great places that have high-quality destinations and can be comfortably accessed by foot, bike and transit, as well as cars, put little strain on the transportation system. By contrast, single-use spaces and sprawling land use patterns generate thousands of unnecessary vehicle-trips, creating dysfunctional and divisive roads, which further degrade the quality of community places.
More traffic and road capacity are not the inevitable result of growth. They are in fact the product of very deliberate choices that have been made to shape our communities around the private automobile. The problem is not automobiles themselves, but rather the sacrifices we have made to accommodate car traffic in our cities and towns.
Downtown streets can become destinations worth visiting, not just thruways to and from the workplace. Neighborhood streets can be places where parents feel safe letting their children play, and commercial strips can be designed as grand boulevards, safe for walking and cycling and allowing for both through and local traffic. Transit stops and stations can improve communities and make commuting by rail or bus a pleasure (an outcome of a related PPS initiative, “Thinking Beyond the Station.”)
We are poised to create a future where the rediscovered importance of walking and “alternative transportation modes” will bring more people out onto the streets—allowing these spaces to serve as public forums where neighbors and friends can again connect with one another.