Living on the Street

Sheldon Solow’s development near Robert Moses Park, the privatization of a public park planned for the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the mounting constructions in downtown Manhattan, and the fight for public parks over market space in the South Bronx: The overtaking of public spaces by private investors and developers has become a regular routine in the city’s real estate sections.

astorafter Living on the Street
Astor Place, modestly reimagined.

The new constructions often promise to maintain a section of park or plaza space, but they are typically out of reach to the public at large. Or large segments of them are parceled off for development in return for private maintenance of the public part of the space. And, of course, there is a difference between wasteful and useful public space—open, sans gate, with seats and maybe food.

The New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign is now focusing on another public space that routinely requires private maintenance—the city’s streets. Taken together they are by far the city’s largest public space. Tuesday night was the opening gala for Livable Streets: A New Vision for New York , an multimedia exhibit on display at The Urban Center until March 29th that explores how traffic and poor planning affects the quality of urban life.

“Pedestrian friendly streets are the city’s most fundamental assets,” according to NYCSR, which counts community groups, elected officials and business leaders among its members and was founded by Project for Public Spaces, Transportation Alternatives and The Open Planning Project.

The organization asserts that, “If we continue planning our streets for cars and traffic we will get more cars and traffic; conversely, if we start planning our cities for people and places, we will get more people and places.”

It’s not an entirely novel idea. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Jane Jacobs wrote about the importance of street life in creating a safe and dynamic community. More recently, Danish architect Jan Gehl pushed an idea to tax drivers entering the city’s busiest districts in order to reduce traffic and restore public space. (It’s been succesful in London, and the city’s own Department of Transportation is quietly looking into it.)

Gehl proposed creating more bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways.

NYCSR imagines even broader changes. Their Web site introduces new plans for familiar city crossings, like that of Sculpture for Living, with multilayered photos that show how a crowded intersection of automobiles can become a meeting point for people. The group also employs a full-time videographer, Clarence Eckerson, Jr., to document hazardous streets and community attempts for change.

They point to Philadelphia and Chicago as evidence of effective projects. Those cities invested in small changes, like benches and restored facades, which reinvigorated its streets and local businesses.

- Riva Froymovich