Vibrant, thriving commons are essential to creating healthy, human-scale cities. Our public streets are one of the most overlooked commons, as they’ve long been dominated by cars. But a growing movement is working to recreate streets as public spaces that belong to everyone—not just car owners.
Recently, the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) created the Streets As Places Resource Page, which will provide principles, tools, and examples to “help ensure that the streets in our communities can live up to their full potential.” The first installment is 8 Principles for Fostering Streets as Places, which describes, in detail, the principles of thriving streets and provides examples of each. Here’s an intro to each principle, taken from the PPS resource page.
1. Great Activities and Destinations
Photo: Los Angeles Fashion District
People need to have a reason to be, and stay, in a particular place. The more activities and options a street offers, the more it attracts diverse groups of people – which is essential for creating a place that feels vibrant and dynamic.
No one wants to spend time in a place that is unsafe. Speeding cars pose the biggest threat on many of our streets, but crime – real or perceived – can also keep a street from teeming with life.
3. Inviting and Rich in Detail
Photo: Irish Jaunt
Great streets are the result of thousands of tiny details that involve the design of their buildings, landscaping, sidewalk features, and street layout itself. A walk on a beautiful street feels like strolling; a walk on a terrible street feels like trudging.
4. Designed for Lingering
Photo: Elizabeth Ramaccia
Whether or not a street functions as a great public place is best measured by people’s willingness to linger along it. Of course, this metric of success is quite different from how transportation agencies and engineers might evaluate a street – through Level of Service metrics, for example, which calculate how quickly cars can pass through a corridor.
5. Interactive and Social
Photo: The City Repair Project
What may differentiate Placemaking from other urban planning and design movements is its emphasis on spaces that facilitate interaction between people. Streets, more so than any other public space, have the potential to spark limitless interaction – planned and unplanned, long and short, between people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s what builds a sense of community and place attachment. As Jane Jacobs said, ‘The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man…”
Photo: Birger Hoppe
The best streets in the world do not look or feel like any other street; they have an identity of their own and unique features, whether it’s a winding lane in Little Italy or a grand boulevard like the Champs-Élysées. Planner and author Victor Dover talks about the importance of “memorable streets,” where your experience there makes a lasting imprint. Architect Ben Hamilton-Baillie agrees that great streets often have “an unexpected feature or quality to them.’’ Too many streets in our communities have the opposite effect – the same pavement, lighting, road signage, parking lots, and chain stores which lead to our streets having a placeless, “Anywhere, USA” feel, where no one wants to linger.
Photo: Virginie Nadimi
Great streets are true meeting grounds of local society – where people of different ages, ethnicities, and income levels intersect and interact. To make that happen, not only does a street need to have diverse destinations and activities, but it also needs to be easily accessible to all.
Photo: Fai Chong
The needs of the neighborhoods adjacent to our streets can change over time, and often even over the course of a week. A downtown street may be flooded with cars during the week, but home to more pedestrians than vehicles on the weekends. Similarly, great streets need to work year round, even in challenging weather conditions. For most streets in our communities, however, the layout and use of our streets remains static. We’re often not getting the best use out of our streets.