Street Defense

Finally, the Public Is Reclaiming the Street

March 17, 2014

Principal, NBBJ


If you’ve walked around New York City in the past few years you may have noticed a change in the urban street experience. It doesn’t feel any less crowded and perhaps not much cleaner either. But there is something more hospitable about it. More space. More places where people are welcome to sit and stay a while. More lanes and wider sidewalks catering to bicycles and people.

Some would credit this realization to the aspirations of a powerful mayor. But I think it is more than that — because it is happening in other American cities as well. A global movement is reclaiming the public uses and renewed capacities of the city street. They are not just utilitarian spaces to move volumes of traffic, people, and goods to and fro; they are an elemental part of the social fabric of the city.

It is more than aesthetics and visual appeal. It is even more than accommodating pedestrian versus driver comfort or convenience. It is about affording opportunistic use patterns for everyday civic spaces. When you walk, bike or even see these new public spaces from the seat of a car, you are looking at a small representation of the rejuvenated public realm. It is civic in nature for how it makes the activities and interactions of people visible: on a street bench, at a plaza bistro table, in a parklet next to a cafe, or lending a hand to a neighbor at a bike-share station.

“Right-sizing” is the strategic thinking behind making contiguous, multiple margins of transportation space. This consolidates acute-angled intersections, medians and even parking stalls to repurpose them into something else. The movement goes far deeper than filling these accumulations of space with vegetation and uses for people. You might think this is fundamental and maybe mundane. But as a pattern, when the public sector takes responsibility and re-invests amidst a recovering economy, it is quite profound.

It hasn’t been without controversy, as the shameful, years-long saga of the Prospect Park West bike lane attests. Even former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration pioneered many of these efforts, once called closing parts of Broadway to cars “the stupidest idea I’d ever heard.”


A pedestrian plaza and bike path in Midtown, New York.

Yet as we know, Bloomberg came around. It was not always a clean and prescribed conventional process. In New York, the clawback of private space dedicated to personal vehicles was initiated by public leadership through city agencies and sometimes in partnership with commerce. But that was only the start. As these public streets and plazas sustain active use and grow in appreciation, another part of the body public, community support, takes over and fuels the culture of the most provocative part of the project: the broader enterprise of a rejuvenated and modernizing public realm.

This public realm all too often has been scrutinized by urbanists when subject to privatization or private enterprise. Its expansion, however, represents a reassuring and strengthening condition of a more agile contemporary public sphere, in terms both of public process and of the reappearance of city “wealth” through daily use.

So when drivers complain about the reduction of traffic lanes, they don’t realize the fight is largely over. Urban dwellers have taken to the expanded public space and, increasingly, come to expect it. Popular success stories keep this transportation-oriented placemaking movement socially and economically viable. The collective success of expanded public space around the world may be just enough to imbue a kind of social-security for streetscapes.

We’ve had a taste of the public life. And we aren’t going back.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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