Reimagining Our Streets as Places: From Transit Routes to Community Roots

Annah MacKenzie
Mar 2, 2015
May 1, 2024
In a city the street must be supreme. It is the first institution of the city. The street is a room by agreement, a community room, the walls of which belong to the donors, dedicated to the city for common use. Its ceiling is the sky. Today, streets are disinterested movements not at all belonging to the houses that front them. So you have no streets. You have roads, but you have no streets. - Louis Kahn, The Street
‍Willoughby Plaza, Downtown Brooklyn | Photo by NYCDOT Creative Commons

Streets are our most fundamental shared public spaces, but they are also one of the most contested and overlooked. Today, and for most of the last century, we have taken for granted the idea that our streets are primarily zones for cars, parking, and the transporting of goods. This has not been the case, however, throughout most of history. Across many cultures and times – since the beginning of civilization, in fact – the street has held vast social, commercial, and political significance as a powerful symbol of the public realm.

‍Halloween Parade in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, 2014 | Photo by Author

The street was “the first institution of the city,” as architect Louis Kahn once wrote, and even if we don’t always recognize it, streets are still a powerful force in shaping our physical and mental landscapes. We name them after our idols and fallen heroes—in remembrance of presidents or literary figures, civil rights leaders or old Hollywood stars. In many of our own lives and experiences, they are sites for both celebration and rebellion: Stages for summer block parties and holiday parades, they are also the place we gather to express public dissent—as with recent demonstrations following the grand jury decisions in St. Louis and New York, where millions took to the street in protest of widespread police brutality and racial injustice. When streets function well on the level of everyday experience, they provide opportunities for people to connect in a way that no other public space can.

‍Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia, 2013 | Photo by author

Despite the central role they continue to play in each of our lives and memories, today’s streets are failing us on multiple scales. Our streets once functioned as multiple-use town centers, as places where children could play and where neighbors and strangers would stop for conversation, today they have become the primary and near-exclusive domain of cars.

Beyond traffic and safety issues, many of our generation’s most pressing challenges are bound in some way to our relationship with streets and the built environment: Reduced physical activity is a leading culprit of our current epidemics of obesity and chronic disease; lack of access to good places has led to widespread social isolation and depression (particularly amongst older populations); increased vehicle emissions have degraded air quality and contributed to the greenhouse gases causing climate change; and a lack of transportation options for many communities has caused uneven access to jobs, social services,  healthy food options, and community interaction.

‍Street Market in Havana, Cuba, 2006 | Photo by PPS

Clearly, we need to start thinking seriously about how we can reverse these trends and begin turning streets back into places—into destinations for culture, creativity, and community. If streets have “lost their importance in terms of their share of land,” and their “prominent role in shaping the culture and history of cities,” as indicated in a 2013 UNHabitat report, then how did we move so far away from this ideal?

Making Room for Cars: A Brief History of the Motor-Centric City

When we build our landscape around places to go, we lose places to be. - Rick Cole

Traffic and road capacity are not just inevitable fallouts of progress and growth. Rather, they are the results of deliberate plans to design and organize communities around the private automobile. When modernist architect Le Corbusier envisioned the urban street as a “machine for producing traffic” in 1924, congestion had already begun to cause serious problems in major cities like Paris and New York. “The congestion is so complete,” he wrote, “that in New York businessmen leave their automobiles in the outskirts and take the subway to the office. An amazing paradox!” His solution? Design streets solely around the car—eliminate pedestrians, wide boulevards, and sidewalk cafés altogether. Not only would this alleviate unwanted congestion, so his theory went, but it would also reduce social ills such as crime and public revolt.

In the United States, similar concerns about increasing traffic congestion in cities, which reached a climax after World War II, led to a mass expansion of national road systems. Plans for a high-speed freeway system would culminate a decade later with the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which would erect a 42,500-mile network of high-speed, limited-access highways that linked cities from coast to coast.

‍Delivery trucks jamming West 37th Street, NYC, 1945 | Photo by Al Aumuleer. New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

As history has shown, the “freeway rush” of the following two decades would leave lasting, sometimes devastating, marks on the physical and social landscapes of the nation. Not only would highway construction actually increase traffic in residential and commercial areas, but it would also drive development away from cities. In the process, established residential neighborhoods would be divided, often destroyed in the name of “slum clearing,” and the availability and value of urban housing would decline as much of the middle-class population migrated to the suburbs. These shifts, along with the de-concentration of economic activity as it moved to the suburban periphery, worked to further disenfranchise poor and largely nonwhite inner-city communities.

In short, because of single-minded assumptions that the car was and always would be king in America, for most of the past century cities and communities have been designed to meet mobility needs rather than human needs like social interaction, physical activity, or a connection to place. We still need highways, of course. Roads that facilitate efficient travel from point A to point B are essential for the national economy, for our mobility, and for modern life writ large. But some of our streets—especially those in our cities, neighborhoods, and downtowns—need to become more multifunctional to accommodate a greater variety of activities and users.

Even though our values and demographics have shifted dramatically over the past 70 years, the planning and engineering principles we are using to design and regulate our streets and cities, by and large, have not. Unless we make some significant changes, we will continue to get the same results: a few isolated great places linked by car-dominated streets, placeless sprawl, poor physical health, social isolation, and disinvested low-income communities.

That’s the bad news.

The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way! Streets can once again become thriving, livable environments for people, not just cars. Downtown streets can become cultural destinations, not just monotonous routes to and from the workplace. Neighborhood streets can become safe play zones for children, and commercial areas can become grand boulevards that welcome pedestrians, vendors, cyclists, and drivers alike. How? By focusing on creating great places, and centralizing this process in our policy and planning frameworks. This is where Streets as Places comes in.

‍Copenhagen, 2007  | Photo by Mikael Colville-Anderson, Creative Commons

The Placemaking Movement Starts with Streets

When the revolution starts, there should be no question of where to go. - Charles Moore

Streets as Places—as both an organizing concept and a strategy—can help make way for these transformations. Taking an integrative approach to the planning, design, and management of our shared public spaces, the growing Streets as Places movement is helping people begin to see streets in their entirety: not just their function in transporting people and goods, but the vital role they play in animating the social and economic life of communities. It’s not a streetscape design, it’s a process – it’s about communities owning and reclaiming their streets, participating in civic life, and having a direct impact on how their public spaces look, function, and feel.

Paris, Les Berges. When we talk about “streets” at PPS, we’re not just talking about curb-to-curb concrete and pavement; we’re talking about the entire scene and environment of a street—sidewalks, storefronts, transit stops, markets, waterfronts, and green space. | Photo by PPS

In the last two decades, with the mobilization of numerous alliances and coalitions, we have made great strides towards improving our streets. The Smart Growth, Complete Streets, and Active Transportation movements have been instrumental in moving transportation policy to better encourage multi-modal street designs that safely accommodate a range of users. Because of the efforts of these and other groups, nearly 700 communities in the U.S. have passed Complete Streets policies and the U.S. Department of Transportation has made it a major priority to create safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

This is a huge step in the right direction! Making streets safe for all modes of transport—automobile, public transit, bicycle, pedestrian—is the first step in turning streets into destinations in their own right. But for streets to truly function as public places, they have to do more than allowing people to safely walk or bike through them. When streets are great places, they encourage people to linger, to socialize, and to truly experience the unique culture and character of a particular street.

‍Divisadero Parklet in San Francisco, 2010. Pavements to Parks in San Francisco works with nonprofit organizations to transform underutilized streets into vibrant open plazas. Many other U.S. cities have adopted similar initiatives, such as New York’s NYC Plaza Program, the Pedestrian Plaza Program in Philadelphia, and People Plazas in Chicago (check out this stretch of Argyle Street in uptown Chicago, which will soon be the city’s first to adopt a radical “shared street” design, based on the Dutch woonerf concept). | Photo by Jeremy Shaw, Creative Commons.

With a growing number of examples from around the globe, more and more people and institutions are realizing that access to good places is a right, not an option or privilege that only a fortunate few can enjoy. Whether it’s through the adoption of transportation initiatives (such as road diets and rightsizing, Vision Zero, or the Shared Space concept), through efforts to boost the local economy by revitalizing Main Streets and experimenting with block makeovers, or through creative Placemaking projects involving public art and community programming (like City Repair and “Paint the Pavement” projects), cities everywhere are beginning to move away from a narrow perception of streets as mere conduits for cars. On local and national levels, designers and planners, government agencies, nonprofits, community organizations, and ordinary citizens are thinking of the potential of streets to once again be livable and productive places—for bicycles, for markets, for businesses, for people.

Even in our own backyard, out the window of our Manhattan office, we at PPS watched in excitement over the past year as Lafayette Street underwent some significant transformations. A block away, one of our favorite lunch spots has just applied with the NYCDOT for a Street Seat—a 6’x25’ platform that replaces several parking spots to enable seasonal public open spaces where sidewalk seating isn’t available. We can’t wait for spring, when, if all goes according to plan, we can stroll down our street to share a meal with co-workers and neighbors, lingering together on our impromptu island as we watch the vibrant life of the street on either side of us.

As the energy surrounding Placemaking continues to gain momentum, the time is ideal for rallying around the Streets as Places movement! Together, we can turn our streets—our most vital public resources—into interactive, functional, and fulfilling places for everyone. Here are some ways you can get involved:

1. Make your own street a place. Think about ways you can improve the block where you live or work. Small measures, like planting a tree or flowers, putting out a Little Free Library in your front yard, or organizing a block party are great ways to start. Remember, if your house or building faces out onto the street, it’s part of the street and people’s experience as they pass by it.

2. Organize an Open Streets Dozens of cities across the country now regularly close their streets to cars for special events, allowing people to take advantage of the whole right-of-way. It’s a great way to help people see streets in a new light, and to open a conversation about how our streets should be used.

3. Consider “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" strategies to improve and activate your streets. There are many relatively low-cost, quick ways to transform your streets, from layering in public art or benches, building street seats or parklets, rightsizing projects that prioritize pedestrians, holding special events or concerts on the street, to lighting displays. For more inspiration, check out the Better Block and Tactical Urbanism projects.

4. Support small businesses that activate streets. Local shops, like hardware stores, bakeries, and coffee shops are vital places in our communities. When they’re located along a Main Street, they help encourage people to walk, enhance the local economy, and encourage neighborly interaction. Shop local, and encourage these businesses to think about how they can help enhance the street to benefit their bottom line and the neighborhood through creative window or outdoor merchandise displays, a bench or seating on the sidewalk, attractive landscaping, hosting local events, or getting involved in the local Main Street or merchant’s association.

5. Advocate for safe streets. To make people feel comfortable walking and spending time on a street, it needs first and foremost to be a safe place. Too many Americans, particularly seniors and children, are killed and injured on our streets every year. Reducing vehicle speeds and safe infrastructure for those walking and biking - sidewalks, protected bike lanes, crosswalks, and medians - are critical to making a street a place for people. Learn about the role of local transportation agencies in street design and how you can effectively impact these processes by downloading PPS’s “Citizen’s Guide to Better Streets” here. It’s free!

6. Ask your local transportation departments and elected officials to support measures that recognize streets as places for people. Streets should be safe for people to walk and to bike; they can have places to gather together; they should highlight local talent and can close to vehicles during special celebrations or for market days. Check out PPS’s ‘What Makes a Great Place?’ to help diagnose how your community’s streets stack up.

7. Think Beyond the Station. Bring life to local transit stops! People waiting for the bus or metro deserve better than standing next to a pole without any seat or shelter. With some basic amenities and creative design, transit stops can be places where people actually want to spend time.

8. Get involved in local projects and groups. There are efforts in every community across the country already working to create better streets for people, including biking and walking organizations, smart growth groups, and Main Street associations. Join one and ask how you can help.

9. Celebrate success! Nominate a “Great Street” to our updated Great Public Spaces web resource. Is there a street in your community, or that you’ve encountered in your travels, that deserves recognition? Let us know! Help us in generating an ongoing conversation about the important role of Streets as Places in communities across the world. Submit your story and image(s) here!

10. Join PPS this spring for our Streets as Places training event. Learn more and register for the April session here!

The exciting Streets as Places movement is still a work-in-progress, and it is always being redefined and reimagined. Help keep the conversation going by sending us your feedback and ideas! What do streets mean to you, and what are the features that make a street truly great? By taking small steps to activate the streets in our own cities and neighborhoods, together we can affect real change in reclaiming our right to this dynamic public space.

To the streets, everyone!

‍14th Street, New York, NY. October 2014 | Photo by Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons

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