Public Spaces for People: Rethinking Streets

Many urban spaces exist in a sort of public/private grey area. They may be technically public, such as an intersection or a parking space on the street used temporarily by a private car, or technically private, such as that stretch of lawn between the sidewalk and street that an adjacent homeowner is tasked with maintaining. A variety of innovative ideas have popped up to challenge these technicalities.

Parklets, mini-parks or mini-community seating spaces, are a concept originally developed in San Francisco as an activist project that has been putting more eyes on the street and more people in contact with one another in cities around the globe. Taking the street-level focus off of parked cars, parklets transform sidewalks into mini parks or community spaces where people can interact with one another, as well as the innovative design features. Parklets even have their own holiday, Park(ing) Day on September 20th, an online DIY planning network, and thanks to UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, there’s even a tool-kit for creating one in your community.  

Private/community gardens have been popping up in neighborhoods, not just as established community-organized lots, but as small garden plots placed in the front of homes or right near the street inviting anyone in the community to stop by, wander through, and even take what they’d like. Some are creating conversation pieces and expressing themselves, while others are feeding people fresh vegetables in food deserts.

City Repair, a community organization in Portland, Oregon has been remaking car-oriented street spaces into community spaces for people since 1996 with a variety of neighborhood projects aimed at bringing neighbors together. This organization’s projects, such as Intersection Repair, intervene in the ways cities are designed to facilitate interaction between neighbors. The projects bring people together in to transform intersections into usable community spaces with features such as open access sidewalk libraries, notice boards, and community gathering places.

Intersection Repair is commonly characterized by colorful painting of the street in the intersection, which also acts as a traffic calming measure. City Repair’s projects have become so popular that open access sidewalk libraries and poetry boxes have become commonplace throughout the city.

 

By creating more spaces for people and human connections in communities, these ideas are shifting the focus away from private use and away from the traditional car-oriented design focus. These ideas are mainly coming from the ground up.

Rather than waiting for city governments to innovate for more social uses of urban space, communities and businesses are taking the step to push the boundaries at the street level, often inspiring cities to get involved in the transformation. Bicycle parking is one of the first phases in transforming a car-oriented street.

Outside a coffee shop, a parking space has been taken over for bicycle parking and a little extra seating.

Mississippi Pizza, a lively restaurant with a DIY attitude and interesting ways to engage passers by has taken over parking spaces on Mississippi Avenue in Portland to provide sidewalk dining. By the looks of things, more and more urban dwellers desire greater community connections and they’re finding innovative ways of reshaping urban space to get there.