Saturday, May 30, 2009

Re-thinking urban streets

Good Magazine has published the winners of its "Design a Livable Street" contest. The concept was to start with a photo of a street scene, presumably in the contestant's own area, and present improvements using PhotoShop that would make the street more user-friendly. In other words pedestrian friendly, not car friendly.

This is quite timely as New York has just closed portions of Times and Herald Squares off to vehicular traffic.

While I'm a big advocate of foot, two wheeled and public transportation over the four wheeled motorized variety, I'm a bit skeptical of re-designing urban streets that have served the purpose of balancing the transportation needs of all of the above quite well for in most cases over a century.

The suburban street scene is quite another story of course.

The obvious example in Chicago is the failed State Street Mall which was mercifully returned to a traditional street in the 90's. You can read more about it in an earlier post here.

The conceptual problem with the SSM beyond its design flaws, was that the reduction of the width of the street (which increased traffic density even though private vehicles were prohibited), combined with widened sidewalks reduced the over-all density of foot traffic on the street. While at the outset, the number of pedestrians on State Street remained consistent, the lower density gave the perception that the area was in decline. City centers thrive on density. That decline became a self-fulfilling prophesy as what was once the commercial heart of the city became a virtual a ghost town.

But getting back to the contest, the entrants included in their designs, bike lanes, crosswalks, streetcars, the removal of billboards, and best of all, lots of attractive people enjoying their stroll through the once bleak city-scape. (Clicking on an entry brings the viewer to an interactive before and after view). No one seems to be going to work or engaged in otherwise unpleasant activities. All the unpleasantness has been PhotoShopped out.

The scenes presented by the contestants all seemed fine enough if not a little boring. There was a particular sameness in all of the entries. All hints of sense of place also seemed edited out.

For example, billboards to me are not particularly offensive, they add color and life to the streetscape.

And while I love the idea of bringing back streetcars, their efficacy as an eco-friendly, cost effective transportation alternative is debatable.

Strangely enough given the fact that the bicycle is my primary means of transportation, I save my biggest reservation for bike lanes. Setting aside specific lanes for bicycles gives motorists the idea that bike traffic should be limited to those lanes and that cyclists should stay off streets with no bike lanes. It has always been my contention that we cyclists are better off with fewer concessions from government. If we ask for fewer concessions, then fewer concessions are demanded of us, or so the argument goes.

If I am skeptical of all this, it is because of all the well meaning, grand visions of city planning that I've seen over my years. What works well on paper and in images does not always translate to real life. To me what is fascinating about cities is the way they come together through happenstance, the flow of everyday life that plays out on the streets. Big plans don't always save room for small details where most of the life of cities resides. Momentous and far reaching as the Burnham Plan was, I think we are better off that much of the Plan was never realized.

Still I applaud the efforts, I may take a stab at reconstructing a Chicago street. Up where I live, Western Avenue between Howard and Touhy needs some work. Stay tuned!

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