When surrounded by the immense infrastructure necessary to support a high volume of vehicles, as most city streets are designed to do, it can be easy to forget that public spaces could be anything other than utilitarian and car-centric. When we think of public spaces, we often only consider the larger parks designated by the city, and not necessarily the streets or sidewalks, yet those spaces are also built and maintained for the people as part of "the commons," and reclaiming portions of them for the use of the public can help to humanize the city by acting as people-scaled spaces for social interactions in urban settings.
The era of the automobile brought about a rapid transformation of public spaces, of which many of the changes continue to affect cities and their residents to this day, through confining pedestrian and non-vehicular traffic to the edges of the roads, and by committing large amounts of space to not just the traffic itself, but for both short- and long-term parking for vehicles. Designing for vehicular traffic has been beneficial, for the most part, for the large-scale transportation of both people and goods, but has had quite a different effect on the social and communal interactions on a smaller scale, as more of the people-sized areas of public spaces got squeezed out in favor of more efficient use of the streets by vehicles.
Instead of people gathering on the sidewalk or stoop, or on the grassy verge of a road, or on a bench on the sidewalk to pass the time of day, the social interactions and functions are increasingly taking place in private spaces, such as the coffeeshop or restaurant, or are happening virtually, online. But an emerging trend of reclaiming public spaces and streets as "the commons," whether it's just for a day (Parking Day), or a week (pop-up parks), or even long-term (parklets), is helping to bring about a more sustainable way of thinking about the future of our cities.
TheCityFix has a great piece about how public spaces can help to make cities more people-oriented, and offers examples of cities and movements that are shaping the new urban commons, including New York City's High Line, Paris' revitalization of the Seine River waterfront, Los Angeles' People St. program, and the tactical urbanism of Dallas' Better Block movement. It's well worth a read, and this intro paragraph helps to sum up why reclaiming public spaces is important for sustainable development:
"Many public areas have been gradually forgotten—no longer safe living spaces that move people. In order for cities to be vibrant and safe places, we need to think of them as systems of interdependent parts and complex connections, as interactive and social spaces. Reclaiming urban spaces for people is part of how we can humanize our cities and make our streets more communal. Public spaces are often more than anonymous places that can be replaced with one another: the meetings and exchanges that occur here affect our relationships with each other, giving meaning to our communities and urban landscapes."
Read the entire piece here: How Public Spaces Make Cities More People-Oriented
Image of High Line Park by David Berkowitz under CC 2.0 license.