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The Street as Public Space: a complex and contested realm

We are pleased to present a new Routledge Sustainability blog post written byVikas Mehta, PhD, author of The Street.

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The Street as Public Space: a complex and contested realm

Streets reflect the identity and image of a city: by closely examining its streets, we can decipher the social, cultural and political life of a city. Streets are arenas for individual and group expression, sites for exchange of information and ideas, forums for dialog, debate and contestation, spaces for conviviality, leisure, performance and display, places for economic survival and refuge, a system of access and connectivity, and settings for nature in the city. Although uses and meanings of the street vary across cultures, as a typology, the street is a pancultural space, especially when we consider urban settlements.

In recent years, streets have received a lot of attention. Numerous agencies and groups, both institutional and spontaneous, have come up with ideas and efforts to reclaim the street, particularly from the vehicle, and make it a people-place. Very oftentimes though, these efforts are ideological, follow current trends and the tendency is to shape the street to become an idealized image of the particular ideology. The image that is most common is one of a hustling-bustling street scene with wide sidewalks, trees, people (mostly wealthy and young people) hanging-out at cafes and restaurants, others walking-by with shopping bags, parked cars protecting the pedestrian space, neatly delineated bike lanes, green medians, and so on. You get the picture. This is the aspirational “great street” of today. The “place-made” street. But it is also a place that is formulaic, homogeneous, boring even. It is in fact the flattened version of the vibrant street that is or was or can be the true public space of the city. So what image of the street should we aspire to? What should be the values and principles of the system that will help us achieve a street for people?

First and foremost, if we want the street to be a public space, we must accept the street as a contested space. As a contested space, the street must even present a transient and conflictual system. As a ubiquitous public space the street must entail myriad relationships and support complex webs of interconnected but also disconnected activities and phenomena. Understanding and celebrating this requires inclusive rather than exclusive, expansive rather than reductive approaches, values and attitudes. Second, as a complex system, we must accept the varying phenomena on the street in different states of completion and equilibriums, and not as a completed and finalized project.

In my book The Street: a quintessential social public space (Routledge, 2013), I examine three streets in detail using a micro-analysis of behavior and interactions. I detail the workings of the street as a negotiated space of access, travel, commerce, leisure, sociability and survival. The analysis, using observations and mappings, presents the everyday life on the street as both a place and path. I show how these ordinary public spaces can be planned and designed to become settings that support an array of social behaviors. By using numerous qualitative and quantitative methods I systematically examine people’s actions and perceptions, develops a comprehensive typology of social behaviors on the neighborhood commercial street and provide a thorough inquiry into the social dimensions of streets. I show that sociability is not a result of the physical environment alone, but is achieved by the relationships between the physical environment, the land uses, their management, and the places to which people assign special meanings. I also show that multiple uses and users of the street can coexist, with space and time helping them resolve conflicts of occupancy, territory and even esthetics.

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This translates into a large number of people who encounter streets. As an important and ubiquitous public and neighborhood space, the street serves many roles: a pedestrian sanctuary, a place of social capital, support and community, a neighborly territory, a place for play and learning, a place for survival, an outdoor open space, and a place of cultural memory and history. In an increasingly urbanizing world, the streets that support these roles will become more important in creating sustainable neighborhoods and cities.

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