In Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.
This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.
As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.
Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.
On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:
This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)
This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:
Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)
Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)
The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:
Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)
Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.
She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.
Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.
Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:
Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…
The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)
This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:
Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:
retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)
This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…
Density is Destiny
I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).
I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:
Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)
Which helps explain why
After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)
Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.
Setting the Agenda
The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)
How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.
But to give her credit, she made actual changes. She gives these wonderful examples from Island Press’s Urban Street Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials as some of the inspirations:
There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.
She hits it on the nose:
Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)
Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.
These are troubled histories. Like this one:
Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)
Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?
It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:
the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)
Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)
She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.
But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)
She gives this example
It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues. On the High Line, she writes:
…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)
She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the
urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)
Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.
Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:
Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)
The Battle for a New Times Square
Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.
Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)
In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:
The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)
Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:
These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)
Stealing Good Ideas
Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.
I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.
These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)
I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).
And then, the chapter title:
Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses
I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)
I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,
An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)
So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.
This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:
Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)
I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:
In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)
When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.
Nuts and Bolts
I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:
But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)
Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.
But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.
Her last lines.
There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.
If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.
I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.
Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
[Sadik-Khan, Janette and Seth Solomonow (2016) Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. NY: Viking.]