If the city is the essence of society, the street is the essence of a city.
—What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs
The life of any great city occurs on the street. Streets are the most public of domains. They are where we engage in activities. They are the ultimate connective tissue, weaving the city together and integrating its physical and social infrastructure. They are the basic frameworks for urban design and the bond of communities. Streets contain businesses where we get the goods and services we need and want.
Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, said cities need “a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other mutual support, both economically and socially.” On great commercial and mixed-use blocks, this happens naturally. Such streets—when woven through neighborhoods and districts—provide a framework for social interaction and economic growth. They also represent the character, history and culture of the community.
Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.
However most of our streets are not like this. While they were once a place where we stopped to talk with our neighbors and watched our children played, they are now dominated by the automobile. Even where sidewalks are present, they are often inhospitable places. Most streets are still designed to separate people from cars and too few are walkable, lively or sociable.
This needs to change if we want to revitalize our neighborhoods and cities. What happens on streets affects what happens on sidewalks. And what happens on our sidewalks affect what happens in our homes and businesses. Streets need to be designed as places in themselves, prioritizing the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, disabled people, seniors and parents with children above the motorist. City governments need to make sure that traffic engineers and urban planners work with each other to design streets that work for the people who use them.
The mood of a city could depend on something as simple as street width.
What streets do you most enjoy spending time on? Why?