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How to Reclaim Public Spaces for the People Who Use Them

It's time to design spaces around the communities that need them the most.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Robert Adrian Hillman

 
 
 
 
The following are excerpts from On the Commons' new eBook, "How to Design Our World for Happiness" by Jay Walljasper: 
 
Poor People Need Public Places the Most
 
It’s easy to dismiss rising interest in public spaces as something that only the wealthy can afford to worry about. But take a look at any bustling place anywhere in the world—from the markets of Africa and Asia to the squares of Latin America to the street corners of Europe and North America—and you’ll find it’s low-income people who depend on public spaces the most.
 
Enrique Peñalosa—former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia—notes that rich people enjoy the pleasures of big homes, backyards, private clubs, and country houses. Poor people have only their local street to hang out in—and if they’re lucky, a park, library, or playground nearby. He made public spaces the centerpiece of his administration (see “How to Design Our Cities for Happiness”). Since leaving office he has become a globe-trotting ambassador helping out cities from Jakarta (Indonesia) to Dakar (Senegal) improve life for their citizens. 
 
“Public spaces create a different type of society,” he asserts. “A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.”
 
The proliferation of autos, and the low social rank afforded anyone who doesn’t drive is an issue all across the developing world, notes Lisa Peterson, formerly with the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). “Cars are seen as status for people. Big, fast roads are seen as status for cities. That is still the idea of progress in many places.”
 
Peterson sees a number of signs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that people are realizing it’s a mistake to pursue the same kind of auto-dominated development that has created environmental problems and eroded the vitality of public life in the West. The World Bank has backed off from its autooriented development guidelines, while cities like Bogotá and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania provide new models of urban development with an emphasis on transit and bicycles A number of places are also creating pedestrian districts. 
 
“People in the U.S. now recognize there are problems with building cities for cars and not for people,” Enrique Penalosa says, “and we in the Third World need to know that.”
 
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Build on What’s Good to Make Things Better in Struggling Communities
 
The biggest problem in many communities—especially low-income ones— is caused by perception more than reality. A part of town gets the reputation for being “tough,” or “declining,” which is constantly reinforced in the media and local gossip A negative incident happening there is widely reported as more evidence of “social breakdown,” whereas the same thing occurring in another place would be thought of as “an unfortunate event” and quickly forgotten.
 
Making things worse, many well-intentioned efforts to help these afflicted areas wind up stigmatizing the community even more. The whole focus is on everything that’s wrong: bad schools, bad crime, bad housing, bad gangs, bad economic opportunities. Even the people who live there come to feel negative about where they live and helpless to do anything to change things It’s all just bad. Yet even in the most economically and socially challenged communities, there are a lot of good things going on—shared dreams, community assets, and ways that people come together. These are the building blocks to make things better.
 
On paper, things looked bleak for the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago in the early ‘90s Eighty percent of children there lived in poverty, and a third of adults were unemployed. Yet below the surface, not visible in government statistics or a quick drive down its rundown streets, there was reason for hope.
 
This largely African-American community of 36,000 on the city’s South Side was home to no less than 320 citizens groups working to improve life in the neighborhood 
Grand Boulevard’s residents were not just hapless victims waiting for someone from the outside to rescue them; they were taking matters into their own hands. These community groups—which ranged from church committees to senior citizen centers to mothers’ support groups—were mostly involved in the basic caretaking such as providing support for single mothers or taking in children whose parents were in prison.
 
Eventually many of these groups organized themselves into the Grand Boulevard Federation, which started addressing more complex issues such as creating jobs in the neighborhood and improving social services. They formed partnerships with government agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses, such as United Parcel Service, which reserved 50 part-time jobs for Grand Boulevard residents needing to get back on their feet. This made a difference in Grand Boulevard—both in concrete economic and social measures, but also the community’s own faith that they can solve their problems.
 
“For the last 40 or 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs,” says Jody Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University.
 
“We have run into a brick wall with that approach.” Kretzmann and his colleague John McKnight of Northwestern pioneered a new approach to urban problems that starts with looking at the assets that exist in a community, rather than just looking at what’s wrong. This empowers people, Kretzmann says, drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents to solve a neighborhood’s own problems. This does not mean, he is careful to note, that troubled neighborhoods don’t need outside help Kretzmann suggests all local revitalization projects begin with an assets inventory—which can be as simple as a list of what’s good about the neighborhood Solicit the opinions of everyone, including youngsters and senior citizens, when compiling your list.
 
Jim Diers, a veteran activist who has held workshops throughout Seattle to help residents improve their neighborhoods, says, “The assets a neighborhood can build on range from natural features to a school playground, great stores, networks, organizations, artists, and the whole range of human and financial resources, energy, creativity, and ideas. Whether it’s a restaurant with especially delicious food, a gigantic cedar tree, or a longtime resident, a neighborhood treasure is something that makes us glad we live where we do.”
 
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The Perplexing Absence of Pedestrian Streets in America
 
I am bewildered by the almost complete lack of pedestrian streets in North America Why is it that carfree commons—designed for pleasurable strolling, shopping, and socializing—which have become typical in European city centers, are almost non-existent here?
 
I’ve only seen a few—a couple of blocks in downtown Boston, Rue Prince Arthur in Montreal, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and short stretches of downtown streets in college towns like Boulder, Ithaca, Iowa City, Charlottesville, and Burlington. (A glance at Wikipedia turns up a few more, although I 
notice many on the list are not truly car-free.)
 
Look what we’re missing. The heart of most notable German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Scandinavian, and, increasingly, South American cities are bustling pedestrian zones.They stand out as favorite spots for young people to gather, lovers to linger, kids to romp, women to show off their new clothes (and discreetly admire the looks of passers-by), men to admire the looks of passers-by (and discreetly show-off their new clothes), and everybody to feel part of the wider community This is the urban commons at its best.
 
Our one widespread experiment in reclaiming the streets—the downtown transit malls of the ’60s and ’70s—failed in most cases. That’s because they were usually narrow, last-ditch measures to recessitate fading stores overwhelmed by suburban flight and new shopping malls, rather than efforts to reinvigorate the downtown as a whole Another factor in transit malls’ failure is that most were not actually pedestrian places—big buses rumbling up and down the avenue squelched the carefree, car-free ambience that fosters exuberant street life.
 
But I am happy to report that I discovered a genuine Euro-style ped street in the most unlikely spot: Calgary, Alberta—a sprawling city whose economy depends, ironically, on the petroleum industry. Yet right in the center of its downtown, among glass skyscrapers and traffic-choked five-lane avenues, you can happily wander five blocks down the middle of Stephen Avenue, passing sidewalk cafes and swank shops, playful public art, and bustling public spaces, unencumbered by cars or trucks during the daytime. (Local residents were no doubt glad to get back to their beloved pedestrian street after the flood waters receded this summer.)
 
Stephen Avenue proves: If you keep out the cars, the pedestrians will come. The notion that cars are the Kings of the Road is a relatively new attitude. For almost all of human history, the city street functioned as a vital commons welcoming all—it’s where carriages and streetcars traveled but also where youngsters played, teens flirted, dogs slept, and everyone else chatted with their friends. That all changed between the 1920s and the 1960s, depending where you lived, as motor vehicles 
claimed these commons for their exclusive use. 
 
Still, I am noticing a few signs that this auto-cracy may be weakening, even in North America. The growth of traffic calming and bike lanes means that motorists are learning how to share the road. And many of us are getting a foot back in the street thanks to modest pedestrian projects being created—a block here or a half-block there in spots like Atlanta; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Rochester, Minnesota; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
 
Don’t underestimate what can arise from these small beginnings Even a short stretch of car-free pavement empowers people on foot to realize the road belongs to them too. Jan Gehl, the influential Danish urban designer who helped create Copenhagen’s pioneering pedestrian district in the 1960s, counsels people to start small and add to it bit by bit through the years.
 
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Green Lanes Get More People on Bikes
 
You can glimpse the future right now in forward-looking American cities—a few blocks here or a mile there, where people riding bicycles on busy streets are protected from rushing cars and trucks. These new projects go a long way toward reclaiming North American streets as commons belonging to everyone.
 
Chicago’s Kinzie Street, just north of downtown, offers a good picture of this transportation transformation. New bike lanes are marked with bright green paint and separated from motor traffic by a series of plastic posts. This means bicyclists glide through the busy area in the safety of their own space on the road Pedestrians are thankful that bikes no longer seek refuge on the sidewalks, and many drivers appreciate the clear, orderly delineation about where bikes and cars belong.
 
Most of all this is a safety project,” notes Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “We saw bikes go up from a 22 percent share of traffic to 52 percent of traffic on the street with only a negligible change in motorists’ time, but a drop in their speeds. That makes everyone safer.”
 
Klein heralds this new style of bike lane as one way to improve urban mobility in an era of budget shortfalls. “They’re dirt cheap to build compared to road projects.”
 
People on bikes around the world feel more safe and comfortable on busy streets with a physical barrier between them and motor vehicles In some places it’s a plastic post or line of parked cars. In others it’s a curb, planter, or slightly elevated bike lane But no matter what separates people on bikes from people in cars, the results are hefty increases in the number and variety of people bicycling.
 
“We’ve seen biking almost triple on parts of 15th Street NW since installing a protected bike lane,” reports Jim Sebastian, Active Transportation Project Manager for the District of Columbia. “And we’re seeing different kinds of cyclists beyond the Lycra crowd People in business suits, high heels, families out 
for a ride, more younger and older people.”
 
Five years ago, these designs were barely on the horizon in the U S , although they’ve been standard in Europe for decades. “Today, cities across the country are looking to green lanes to tame busy streets,” says Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, which is showcasing the potential of this 21st Century innovation in six U S cities: Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, Portland (OR), Austin, and Memphis. 
 
“The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60 percent of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime bike advocate in Chicago who is Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. “It’s about helping people from 8 to 80 to feel safe biking on city streets.”
 
Many cities are paying particular attention to make sure that low-income and minority communities—where many families don’t own cars and others are financially strapped by the rising costs of operating one—have access to state-of-the-art biking facilities. Danny Solis—a Latino alderman representing a district on Chicago’s West Side with a high percentage of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans—says good bike lanes are important to improving public safety and economic vitality in lower-income communities. “It increases interaction between neighbors, which is a boost for businesses 
and keeps the gangbangers away.”
 
Encouraging more people to ride bikes offers substantial rewards for all Americans (whether they ride a bike or not) by using streets more efficiently to move people and offering an economical choices in transportation along with addressing looming problems such as the obesity epidemic and volatile fuel prices. And it gets even better from there—the more people ride, the more benefits we’ll all see.
 
 
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4 Ways Government Can Spark a Self-Help Revolution
 
Politicians and activists devoted to deep slashes in government spending have an easy answer when asked what happens to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on public programs. They point to volunteerism—the tradition of people taking care of each other, which has sustained human civilization for millennia,
 
It’s an attractive idea, which evokes the spirit of the commons. Volunteers working largely outside the realm of government—neighborhood organizations, local fire brigades, blood banks, and other civic initiatives—are obvious examples of commons-based sharing and caring.
 
Theoretically you could picture a society based upon strong incentives for everyday citizens to provide the services now provided by federal, state, and local governments—everything from police protection to the Public Health Service. To actually create such a society, however, would mean some sweeping changes to current economic and social policies.
 
To truly encourage widespread volunteerism, we’d need to make sure that everyone (not just the wellto-do) have the time to do it Most people today working longer hours for less pay are frantic just to get through the day Finding extra time in their crunched schedules to manage upkeep at the local park or take care of elderly neighbors looks impossible.
 
Here are four ways we could create a strong society based on America’s great tradition of volunteerism:
 
  • Dramatically expanded vacation time and family-leave benefits, and the institution of a four-day workweek—along with stringent enforcement of overtime provisions for all people working more than 40 hours a week.
  • A return to the days of the family wage—the period before the 1970s when a middle-class household could get by on one worker’s wages. And unlike those days, minorities and low-wage workers would not be excluded from this social contract. Since we live in a different era now, it’s likely that many couples today would elect to both work half time. But any way you want to do it, this would trigger a volcanic eruption of volunteers.
  • A universal national health care system that goes beyond the insurance reforms of Obamacare.
  •  Most important of all would be a major boost in the minimum wage so that Americans at all rungs of the social ladder would not need to devote all their time and energy to paid work.
These kind of pro-volunteer, pro-commons policies also depend on government playing an important role: Enforcing vacation, family leave, work hours and minimum wage laws, as well as making sure everyone receives adequate health care coverage. Volunteers will not magically appear without positive measures to ensure that all people have time for the common good.