COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Planning for Public Spaces as if People Mattered

May 12, 1978
Dec 14, 2017

By Neal Peirce

March 13, 1978

Washington Post

Tucked away in a nondescript Rockefeller Center office, filled with charts on traffic and people movements, darkroom equipment and movie projectors, works a small band of operatives whose unorthodox techniques could remake the face of hundreds of America's main streets in the years ahead.

Geographer Fred Kent and his colleagues run a small, nonprofit firm, Project for Public Spaces. They believe it's possible to plan for streets, plazas and parks, as if people mattered.

The PPS technique is disarmingly simple: A small team, on invitation from a government, a foundation, or merchant's group, moves into an area and watches how people actually use the place - how they move about, go to work, wait for buses, window shop, dodge vehicles, sun themselves or congregate in groups for talk or recreation. Based on these observations, including innovative use of time-lapse photography, suggestions are then made on how a street or park can be redesigned to be not just an open space, but a lively, livable place where people will want to be.

Kent's group is both a pedestrian lobby and a thorn in the side of specialists - traffic engineers, designers of cold architectural monuments, imperious city bureaucrats - who so often put their own professional predilections ahead of the interests of the man and woman and child on the street.

"We look at a whole space, a whole eco-system, all of the activities that are going on that people are relating to or not relating to, and then begin to make recommendations on how that place can be better designed and managed for what the public needs," Kent says.

PPS's time-lapse photography compresses hours of street activity into a few minutes on the screen. At a speed that outpaces the old Keystone Kops silent movies, pedestrians, buses, cars, and taxis whiz across the screen. Suddenly it becomes clear that parts of that river of movement are exceedingly inefficient, and that with relatively simple changes the street could be made infinitely more pleasant for people.

PPS's first study, shortly after it was formed in 1975, was of 27 blocks of the most intense activity on New York's Fifth Avenue - the premier shopping street of New York and perhaps the whole nation.

People think of a street like Fifth Avenue as a great, nonstop sea of people. "But it isn't," Kent notes. PPS's films show graphically that the pedestrians are forced to move up and down the avenue in platoons. Why? "The traffic lights," Kent says, "are set for private cars and taxis with no consideration of the pedestrian whatsoever."

PPS found that minor shifts in traffic-light timing would end platooning and permit pedestrians to move along the avenue in a steady flow. Broadening the narrow crosswalks, it was suggested, would eliminate a bottleneck and deter pedestrians from spilling over the lines to mix dangerously with traffic. Shade trees would encourage pedestrians to use both sides of the street instead of crowding onto the shaded side on hot summer afternoons.

Fifth Avenue's parking lane, PPS found, was being monopolized by all-day parkers with diplomatic tags that made the owners immune from traffic tickets. The proposed solution: eliminate the parking lane; use the freed-up space to broaden each sidewalk seven feet, creating more space for planters and street seating that create cul-de-sacs conducive to window shopping. (Merchants, Kent notes, often don't recognize the "immense market potential of street space.")

In addition to time-lapse photography, Kent's group carefully counts pedestrians and people in vehicles and spends hours on the street to get a feeling for what can't be quantified - the "sense" of a place.

"On Fifth Avenue you see all kinds of people smiling. There's an exhilaration to it; it picks you up," Kent says. "To remove cars from the avenue would be a disaster. They're part of the vitality. But you need a balance and now it's too heavily weighted toward vehicles." Though stalled under Mayor Abraham Beame's administration, PPS's proposals appear to have a good chance of being implemented under the new administration of Mayor Ed Koch.

In the meantime, the group - which started out in 1975 with inspiration from William H. Whyte, author of "The Organization Man," and funding from the Rockefeller Family Fund - has branched out to examine public spaces across the country. There was a study of Harlem's 125th Street, two plazas in Seattle (where PPS has a branch office), Cleveland's Euclid Avenue, and the Jacob Riis Park in New York's Gateway National Recreation Area. At the invitation of the National Park Service, PPS studied visitor facilities at the Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. PPS is now embarking on studies of downtown Fort Wayne, Ind., Main Street in Columbus, Ohio, and the small Pennsylvania town of Waynesburg.

"The techniques," Kent claims, "are applicable everywhere." And apparently they are, if one shares PPS's belief that "people needs" - not the traffic flow, not some architect's preconceived notion of the "place beautiful" - should come first in public spaces where we all spend a significant portion of our time.

The approach also seems to be an economical one. PPS enters an area with a multi-discipline team; Kent, the geographer, plus an anthropologist, an environmental designer and a filmmaker.

The PPS team recently produced, at a cost of $30,000, a complete evaluation of Cleveland's major shopping and business street, Euclid Avenue, from Public Square to Playhouse Square. Today that street is choked with traffic, dangerous to pedestrian. The PPS plan - which Kent expansively predicts would turn Euclid Avenue into "a very exciting place" and "remake downtown Cleveland" - would broaden the sidewalks dramatically, ban parking altogether and private autos most hours of the day, and cut traffic down to a lane in each direction with lay-bys for buses and taxis. Newspaper and information stands would be placed beside bus shelters so that waiting passengers could easily check on transit schedules and cultural and commercial activities.

Can conservative Cleveland be sold such a plan, even if the $7 million to $10 million price tag for implementation seems reasonable? Downtown Cleveland Corporation director Tom Albert believes so, with the use of PPS's film as a selling tool with skeptical merchants and the city government.

The problems and potential of the street, Albert notes, "are hard to appreciate fully until it's laid out before you graphically and in moving pictures. A merchant may say, 'My whole business depends on a parking lane in front of my store,' Then you show him the slow turnover and that that's not true."

Albert believes the PPS approach of starting by observation rather than a preconceived concept has great promise. "People forget that cities are different, physically and socially," he says. "The last thing we need is to have a design from another city picked up and imposed on Euclid Avenue, only to find it doesn't work for us."

From another vantage point, Robert LaGasse of the Landscape architecture Foundation believes PPS's techniques may prove as valuable to landscape architecture as the earliest time-and-motion studies were for modern industry.

That doesn't mean Fred Kent's merry little band of street-watchers won't make their share of mistakes as they go along. But by starting with people, they'll probably make far fewer.

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