October 24th, 2011

Our culture greatly values ‘space.’ We nest in our remodeled homes on our porches and decks, relax in our landscaped gardens, and work in our organized offices.  We enjoy public spaces too ­– parks, promenades, squares, stadiums, beaches. Our National Parks are cultural treasures. We care about these ‘spaces’ and take pride in their condition and appearance.

But when it comes to our street spaces ­– where we all spend so much of our time ­– we share a collective blind spot. Our aesthetics break down completely. Why do we settle for ugly, car-impacted streets as our means to get from our well-tended homes to our well-tended offices?  Every time we drive into town and park our car (SUV or Prius) on the street, we are perpetuating a situation that one would think we would all find intolerable. Why does this persist?

Here are some of the usual explanations:

  • Most modern cities were designed and laid out to serve the needs of cars, not people.
  • Gas and parking are cheap.
  • Our love for convenience trumps all else.
  • Many of us are stuck without other options.
  • We are creatures of habit and changing behavior is painful.

What can get us to think and behave differently?
We posted the photo above on Facebook and it generated a lot of feedback. We’d like more. To keep the conversation going, we’re soliciting more comments and offering a $100 merchandise credit for the best response. You are welcome to respond either on Facebook or on our blog.

Elect Visionary Leaders
One way to get us to think and behave differently is to elect visionary leaders in our cities who have the courage to oppose short sighted urban developments.  Mayors have been shown to have significant effect on public space, both here and abroad.  Our heroes range from Enrique Peñalosa (Bogota) to Kramer Mikkelsen (Copenhagen) and Joe Riley (Charleston). We send a special shout out to former San Francisco mayor, Art Agnos who opposed the rebuilding of the Embarcadero Freeway in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake.  Thus our popular Ferry Plaza and waterfront were reborn, and Agnos lost his re-election bid at least in part for his courage.

Public space is the one place where all members of society are welcome and equal. It is the essence of democracy. Below are a few “street space” shots taken from a recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia. The city was built before the advent of the car and is now preserved by UNESCO decree. The life of the city is all in the streets – day and night – and it feels right.  There is some space for cars, but always subordinated to humans.
Cartagena Streets.blog