Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Making Streets Matter Again

What makes a street a good street? Is it wide lanes or is it wide sidewalks? Does a street exist to facilitate and expedite the flow of automobile traffic, or is it a public space to be shared by cars, cyclists, buses and streetcars, and pedestrians? Is a street merely a means to get you from point A to point B, or is it an end in itself, a destination, a place to see and be seen?

This question has been weighing heavily on my mind ever since I took my girlfriend, who was born and raised just outside Boston, to Oklahoma City one Christmas. We hadn't rented a car at the airport, and so when we wanted to purchase some last minute presents, we decided to walk to the mall...only to discover that there were no sidewalks in North Oklahoma City. We trespassed on lawn after lawn as people in SUVs sped by with quizzical looks on their faces. Why, I wondered, was it so hard to get around without a car? (I also wondered if this woman would break up with me; we married instead.)

And I've been thinking about this conundrum--why do certain communities become car-dependent while others don't?--a lot lately. Turns out I'm not the only one. It seems that from New York City to Oklahoma City, urban planners, city officials, and concerned citizens are raising serious questions about the way we've planned our streets since the 1950s. It's about time.

Take, for instance, today's article in the New York Times about how a radically transformed street in Brooklyn might represent the future of street design in America. Replacing a vast and barren swath of concrete are bike lanes, a median, trees, narrower car lanes, and wider sidewalks. This is a street you'd want to saunter down. This is a street you'd want to promenade down, stroll a boy named Emmett down. This is a street for which the French poet Baudelaire invented the term "flaneur." And it could have remained a simple and uninspired and single-purpose thoroughfare forever.

And in Oklahoma City, influential new urbanist Jeff Speck was hired to examine the City's street grid and make recommendations to improve its "walkability" after Prevention Magazine ranked OKC the poorest city in America for walking in 2008. Guess which city was number 1? Cambridge, Mass.

Oklachusetts, indeed.

But hiring Speck to reexamine its streets was a bold move by OKC, one that didn't go unnoticed by New York City magazine Fast Company or on this St. Louis blog or on this Rutgers University blog.

Of course, bloggers with ties to Oklahoma City, like Daily Oklahoman report Steve Lackmeyer in his excellent OKC Central, Blair Humphreys (son of former OKC mayor Kirk Humphreys) in his excellent imagiNATIVEamerica, and Casey Cornett (son of current OKC mayor Mick Cornett) in his excellent Joy in Mudville all recognize the symbolic and practical importance of Speck's consultation with the City.

And just tonight PBS began its amazing new documentary called Blueprint America by investigating the differing development strategies of Portland, OR, and Denver, CO. Can you guess which city allowed sprawl and built a highway ring and which city built a modern streetcar system and bike lanes and developed an urban development zone to curb sprawl? Every American should watch this documentary, especially people who live in car-dependent communities.

So I sincerely hope that leaders in OKC can tell which way the wind is blowing when it comes to streets, walkability, and even public transit. (Check out Jeff Bezdek's proposal for a modern streetcar system in Oklahoma City). And judging from all the press the issue has received lately, it is clearly blowing in abundance. You could even say that the wind is sweeping down the plain. And while American cities wouldn't have to completely do away with cars like the German town of Freiburg, anyone can tell that there's a sea change happening. Our streets are for more than cars and tumbleweeds.

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