Sunday, January 6, 2013

What Makes Public Space Successful?

Of course, a walking culture is better than an automotive one, better for our bodies and our souls. And of course, street life has to develop organically, from the proper urban conditions — "a citywide commitment to creating an environment that people want to live in," Speck notes, quoting Adam Baacke, assistant city manager for planning and development in Lowell, Mass. Of course, bikes and mass transit are a key part of the mix, as is a human sense of scale.

"It is often surprising to measure some of America's favorite and most successful public spaces — New York's Rockefeller Center, San Antonio's River Walk, San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square — and discover how small they actually are," Speck tells us. "Few are much broader than sixty yards across. And let's not forget Disney's Main Street, famously built at three-quarters scale."

The message is that a successful city has roots and causes, and among the most important of these is a sense of the street. Speck draws on Jane Jacobs, a favorite theorist, to make the point explicit: "Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow."

And yet, the strength of "Walkable City" is that it's not a no-brainer, not in a culture in which it often seems we have done everything we can to make street life obsolete. Such a shift was partly a response to the urban decay of the mid-20th century, which led to freeways and other infrastructure projects that eviscerated neighborhoods. -David L. Ulin,  Los Angeles Times

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