With Colada: Our Sunday Reads 10.25.15

What kind of street do you live on? Work on? Go for walks on? Is it safe for you to walk and bike on? Do you like the streets you use? These are all questions I began asking myself a long time ago when I moved to the city, but this week’s reads made me revisit them again. Our streets connect us, but they can also separate us. So much depends on the kind of street you have, not only the built infrastructure but the kinds of interactions you have on the street. Whether you have to worry about street harassment when you head out the door for a walk or if you know it will be a pleasant, calm experience makes a difference in our lives.

The Next City, The J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City, and The Nature of Cities’s newly published collection of articles on the Just City provides a deep and multi-faceted look at what we must consider if we want to create streets, and by extention cities, that are truly resilient, sustainable, and smart -- buzzwords that are all the rage with urban planners and anyone focused on improving cities. Developing better neighborhoods, creating complete streets, pushing for mixed-use, and working on placemaking -- all of these can be counterproductive if the interplay of race (and other factors, such as gender) aren’t taken into consideration.

Rendering of the neighborhood Moore lives in - Illustration Courtesy Andrea Posada

Rendering of the neighborhood Moore lives in - Illustration Courtesy Andrea Posada

This is exemplified in Darnell Moore’s description of the chilling implications “safety” can have for black residents of neighborhoods that have begun an urban transformation. In his neighborhood, a friend spotted a wanted poster put up by the police regarding a robbery allegedly committed by black men (the victim was white). His friend noted that when black teens were murdered or robbed no wanted poster had materialized. Given the continued issue of police violence against black men, the poster highlights the racialized meaning behind safety, causing us to ask, “safety for whom?”

Safety in a neighborhood isn't neutral, creating the perception of safety for white people often means state violence against black people

This story emphasizes how seemingly innocuous improvements, if not carefully thought out, can end up harming the communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of change, for good or ill. When engaging in placemaking, better street design, and other neighborhood and city redesigns it must be with a careful eye toward equitable, just improvements. Because if we don’t, we will continue to create streets, cities, neighborhoods, and nations that exclude and marginalize people of color, poor people, and other disadvantaged groups. Including and working with the communities whose neighborhoods we are hoping to alter for the better is key to creating the kind of cities that are equitable for all of us, not just a few.  

Photographs of past and present Alabama Street, and a rendering of future possibilities - Image Courtesy ATL Urbanist

Photographs of past and present Alabama Street, and a rendering of future possibilities - Image Courtesy ATL Urbanist

Luckily, our streets (and cities) are flexible, and they can transform over time to look and feel completely differently. StreetsBlog excerpted an article musing on Alabama Street in Atlanta - and how much it has changed since 1890 to current day. The 1890 image shows a street full of bustling pedestrian activity and transit running through the main street. Switch to present day and you see a failed underground mall and a deserted street. What this reveals though is opportunity: that street can change again and become a vibrant hub, filled with people and activity. Looking to history can help us to imagine new possibilities for our streets and neighborhoods, reminding us that the present needn’t continue as is; change is possible.

That doesn’t mean change comes easy however, a recent article in CityLab details the painfully slow process of implementing a road diet on New Brunswick’s Livingston Avenue, turning the four lane road into something more pedestrian and cycling friendly by adding a bike lane and reducing the driving lanes to two, with one middle turning lane. The city has been working with the county since 2008 to implement a road diet, but multiple jurisdictions, a wary public, and unexpected costs (to name a few barriers) have made for slow going. However, New Brunswick’s director of planning and community development, Glenn Patterson, emphasized that slow isn’t necessarily a negative, it can be an indication of a thorough and well-thought out process.

Either way, changing streets are on the horizon in cities all over the U.S. These are exciting times for cities, filled with possibilities as well as pitfalls. As we move forward in trying to make our cities more vibrant and livable, let’s do it with an eye toward creating cities that are truly just, that will better serve all citizens.