Public Space Transformation Needs to be an Urban Priority Now

Public Space Transformation Needs to be an Urban Priority Now

Neil Takemoto’s excellent blog Cool Town Studios points out a few great examples of the pedestrianization of cities taking place across the United States.

New York and San Francisco are coming out ahead with their programs designed to reclaim wasted space and return it to the residents in the form of public squares and pedestrian zones. New York City’s Department of Transportation manages the city’s Public Plaza Program which is designed to “re-invent New York City’s public realm.”

Why? “In New York City, the public right of way comprises 64 square miles of land – that is enough space to fit about 50 Central Parks” while “San Francisco’s streets and public rights-of-way make up fully 25% of the city’s land area, more space even than is found in all of the city’s parks.”

Following the lead of New York City, San Francisco’s new Pavement to Parks program “seek[s] to temporarily reclaim these unused swathes and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks. During the temporary closure, the success of these plazas will be evaluated to understand what adjustments need to be made in the short term, and ultimately, whether the temporary closure should be a long term community investment.”

Image from Streetblog of Pearl Street Plaza, a triangular pocket park that only a few weeks ago served as a parking lot and illegal dump.
Image from Streetsblog of Pearl Street Plaza, a triangular pocket park that served as a parking lot and illegal dump a few weeks before this photo.

This is the type of initiative we need to see from our city leaders across the country.

Cooperation between city agencies is necessary to move forward and we need visionary leaders who are willing to make some waves in order to shake up the status quo that is simply not working.

If you build cities for people, you get people

New York and San Francisco are vying to become the most progressive pedestrian and urban planning cities in the U.S. and they are surpassing other cities, particularly Washington, DC, not just by leaps and bounds but by 64 square miles of creativity.

Clearly, proposing some little pedestrian park or plaza on paper isn’t going to and hasn’t persuade anyone that it will improve our cities. People are used to roads and streets and public space being devoted to cars. That’s why it is essential to make the changes initially and give people the opportunity to feel and experience the delight of a public plaza and then to vote. New York and San Francisco are making temporary changes to demonstrate the value of returning space to people and have promised to return them to business as usual if that’s what people want.

It’s not. Support is overwhelming for pedestrian plazas ONCE people have the chance to experience them. According to a poll by Quinnipiac University, “banning cars on Broadway, creating a pedestrian mall from Times Square to Herald Square is a good idea, New York City voters say 58 – 34 percent … Support ranges from 66 – 27 percent among Manhattan voters to 50 – 44 percent among Bronx voters.”

I’ll paraphrase a common adage: If you build cities for cars, you get cars. If you build cities for people, you get people.

Streets for Cars:

photo from earth island institute
photo from earth island institute

Streets for People:

photo from NY Daily News
photo from NY Daily News
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