In our cities and towns, there isn’t a more democratic space than our streets and sidewalks. Buildings are exclusive—homes are private, offices are secure, you have to pay to get into the gym or eat at a restaurant. Yet, streets are inclusive, collectively ours, and the very essence of public space, shared by all citizens. Everyone, regardless of age, race, political beliefs, or social status, commingles in these spaces between buildings. And it’s free to walk down the street, to window shop, to people watch.

These types of entertainment and socialization have been part of our culture, in some form, since the inception of our country. But, with changes in technology, transportation, and the ways in which we conduct business, the street’s function has evolved and, unfortunately, for the worse.

In the decades following World War II, American cities and towns began changing. Our country’s dependence on automobiles had hit full stride—cars were ubiquitous among the middle class, gas was inexpensive, and the allure of this relatively new freedom captured our collective hearts. The idea of taking family road trips, running out on errands, cruising the strip, or simply going for a Sunday drive became ingrained in American culture—popularized on television and the big screen and idealized in advertising campaigns. This is the lifestyle baby boomers came to know, embrace, and in many ways, romanticize.

Not surprisingly, this driving culture represented a paradigm shift in how our cities and towns functioned and were built. Automobiles, for all of the benefits they added to our lives, created and exacerbated a series of new issues with which our society has been grappling for over half a century: development patterns, land use, pollution, community health, safety, sustainability, and economic development—to name a few.  While many of these topics are intrinsically linked, the focus of the following exploration is on the ways our love of cars have changed how we allocate space within our mixed-use downtowns and districts, promoting the notion that the time has once again come for us as a culture to put people first.

Photo by Johnny Sanphilllippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphilllippo

The Convenience Culture

Within our urban areas, this transportation and lifestyle shift proved our established infrastructure was prioritizing the needs of cars and all of their demands—travel lanes, traffic signals, large roadway lights, signs, driveways, parking lots—rather than those of the people. What we started to realize was that cars take up space, which invariably meant that the complexion of the traditional urban form would have to change. Our community centers, our commercial districts, our main streets began to morph and, in many ways, degrade to make room for these four-wheeled metal boxes.

The problem was that much of this reallocation took place between buildings—generally immovable objects—and so something had to give. Most often, that something was sidewalk space. As a result, to add extra lanes, concrete was traded for more asphalt, and buildings were razed for parking lots with new driveways slicing through pedestrian areas for access. And thus, the convenience culture was first and foremost reflected through physical change—a world built for the scale, the speed, the perspective of cars, not humans.

In the city planning world, this observation is not novel. For decades, urban planners and designers have been trying to balance our country’s love for cars with all of the other elements that make our communities and neighborhoods livable. How do we get people to notice our restaurants and shops when we are moving at 45 mph? How do we convince people to walk when parking lots are so convenient? How do we get people to connect with each other when our environment has been designed to take place behind a wheel? A major component of addressing these questions relies on reexamining the amount of space that has been allocated to cars and discovering ways it can be shared with pedestrians, bicycles, and other transportation modes, such as buses or street cars.

Complete Streets

Fortunately, some positive changes in how we think about transportation have taken place and appear to have gained traction in creating balance in the way we move through our cities. Over the past decade, many municipalities have adopted an approach termed “Complete Streets,” which represents a new wave of thought regarding the accommodation of multiple modes of transportation.

Making a “Complete Street” can include any number of physical interventions, such as narrowing the width of an intersection for shorter pedestrian crossings or narrowing lanes for cars to add bike lanes. Some of the more radical changes come in the form of “road diets,” which consist of eliminating an entire lane or lanes of the street and widening the sidewalks, or adding either bike lanes or a median— in essence gifting space back to pedestrians and bikers. However, this is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution, with context playing a major role in the success of the effort.

 And so, while the notion of Complete Streets has advanced the discussion, there is still much room to address the role of our primary commercial streets, our main streets.

Every small town has a main street, and every city has multiple mixed-use corridors that serve both local and far-reaching populations. Often, these are the areas that attract the most activity—pedestrians, bikes, cars. Given their versatility, these streets exemplify the very essence of what makes our towns vital, giving leverage to their designation as places — destinations, even — rather than a mere means of transporting people somewhere else. However, in order to conceptually elevate the purpose and function of streets, we need to begin defining them differently, creating a typology that establishes and solidifies their uniqueness as democratic public spaces.

A woonerf (Source: Eric Fischer)

Shared Space

“Shared space” is a concept that is not entirely new, but one that has been a part of urban design vernacular since the 1960s, when a Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, implemented the first woonerf in Delft, Netherlands. Monderman posited that the lines on the road, raised curbs, overabundance of signs, and myriad traffic signals, had created a power structure ruled by people behind the wheel—a vehicular dictatorship. He observed that the structure in which traffic rules were established actually created a cluttered physical environment that was confusing and unsafe for everyone, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and even motorists. His approach was to wipe the slates clean, eliminating lines, signs, and curbs—the hope being that users of the street would be forced to rely on eye contact and awareness of other people. And thus the hierarchy was removed and an order achieved by chaos.

Initially applied to residential streets, this concept was expanded to larger commercial and mixed-use corridors in town and city centers, proving to be transformative in shaping many important and well-known urban spaces throughout the world. London, England, Drachten, Netherlands, and Auckland, New Zealand are three cities that have converted many streets using this philosophy.

As usual, the United States has been slow to adapt—we are so accustomed to our lifestyle of convenience that change doesn’t seem very appealing. But observing successes in international cities spurred some larger American cities (and some small towns) to modify their approach. With the millennial generation so prominent and influential, city and town leaders realize that in order to capture them—as residents, as consumers, as important contributors to economies and culture—their respective communities need to appeal to shifting lifestyle choices of this generation. In many ways, millennials are neo-traditionalists, albeit with smartphones in their hands. They tout sustainability, they appreciate high-quality products, and they value place. And, they don’t own or romanticize cars nearly as much—a major divergence from the convenience culture created by the boomers. These factors should drive change in numerous ways, urban form being one.

Batavia, IL’s woonerf (Source: Active Transportation Alliance)

So far, the change has been at a modest scale, with selective streets or districts modified to meet the shared space model—often a few blocks of a main or key street. Seattle created Bell Street Park, a four-block shared space district. Pittsburgh has plans to rebuild a portion of Liberty Street, a main entrance into downtown, based on these principles. Chicago’s first shared street, a multi-block stretch in a predominantly Vietnamese commercial district in the Uptown neighborhood, was just completed. Even small towns have gotten into the act with a notable shared street example having been built in Batavia, Illinois. Batavia has caught the attention of other Chicago suburbs that are considering shared space a viable option as they plan for future streetscape and infrastructure investments.

These instances are small in number, but important and necessary in order to move toward building better urban spaces. As with any uphill battle, the efforts often outweigh the ground gained, as generations of drivers try to grasp the idea that their vehicle’s reign over the street may soon be over. They will need to rub shoulders with cyclists and joggers, dog walkers and toddlers, daydreamers and window shoppers. However, for this premise to truly catch on, it must move beyond the desks of planners and designers, breach its usual lecture confines at planning conferences; it must become ingrained in the way engineers think, embraced by community leaders and politicians, and it must be accepted and understood by the general public. In order for this to occur, these first examples of shared space need to succeed on a number of levels; safety, activity, and vibrancy. In other words, they need to succeed in making streets truly public again; a return to a time when places were built for people, not cars.

(Teaser photo credit: Lima, Peru (Source: McKay Savage))