Public space is enjoying something of a revival. From food truck parks to in-street bicycle corrals, people from multiple generations are discovering that there is more to city life than strip malls and drive-through doughnut shops.
Still, transformative change can be painstakingly slow. Developers, engineers, and city officials readily evoke standard phrases like “prohibitively expensive” (read: too costly for that particular market or their budget); or simply on the basis of “context” (read: it wouldn’t work here.)
But often, they could. While it’s true that not everything works everywhere (I wouldn’t expect an igloo to survive in the Sahara), some ideas for public spaces seem like they can’t miss. Here are five:
21st-Century Street Furniture: Poetry jukeboxes, solar hot-spot benches, outdoor gyms
Street furniture — including benches, lamp posts, bus shelters, and trash cans — can be of the mundane or lavish variety. But functionalism should be a means not an end. Innovative objects are helping to redefine public spaces around the world: outdoor StairMasters and other exercise equipment are popping up in parks all over Europe, WiFi/charging stations are soon to be ubiquitous; and public art is being presented in new and imaginative ways. But before you go advocating for a poetry jukebox in your neighborhood, I would caution that it only works when you have a great public space to build upon. A gimmicky idea like a solar bench won’t transform a dead zone on its own and might only become the focus of resentment.
Dedicated lanes for public transport
If you really want to give incentives to public transit and discourage single-occupancy vehicles, then dedicated bus and trolley lanes are the way to do it. Not only do they blow through congested city streets like a presidential motorcade, they can be deployed on highways as well. These types of public transit should be made to be the best option, while single-occupancy vehicles should be more a matter of want-to rather than have-to.
Cafe tables at curbs, in streets, parks, and in squares
With outdoor seating, the law on the books is that eating areas must be squashed along the side of the building (maybe to prevent the civic chaos that would ensue by allowing a waiter to carry food across a sidewalk). Pushing cafe tables out into the public realm opens up spaces making for better, more active environments. This is done all over the world and it hasn’t led to social collapse (at least, no more so than we already have here). Then there’s the law that if alcohol is served, the area must be cordoned off. This really has no practical purpose and strikes me as a relic of the old blue laws where the ropes containing the drinking area acts as a symbolic chastity belt to separate virtue from vice.
Underground Parking and Retail
Most everyone would love to bury parking. But the cost of excavation is high, making most any kind of underground development (save for a basement) “prohibitively expensive.” Yet somehow, relatively poor Eastern European countries (not just in major cities like Prague or Krakow but provincial towns like Olomouc)are digging three stories down and popping in multi-story shopping malls at every other urban transit hub. For some reason, Portland hasn’t figured out how to make underground projects viable. The result is dead streetscapes, suppressed land values, and the continued non-viability of housing, office space, and retail. Every single garage is a missed opportunity.
Push-button red lights (HAWK Beacons)
On a busy road with lots of car traffic and occasional pedestrian crossings, you might think that a push button red light that stops traffic would not only be safe, but common practice. You’d be right. Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (or HAWKs) are legal in all the New England States — except for Maine, where the State Department of Transportation does not allow them, much to the vexation of local planners and community members. Instead, we get flashing amber or yellow, which is essentially an optional stop for cars, and I’d argue more dangerous than nothing. (I was almost killed at one while crossing in front of a stopped car when a motorist in the next lane assumed no one was coming from that direction and failed to stop.)
Portland’s good public spaces can be made great, but it will take an opening of the collective Maine mind. Perhaps a new administration in Augusta will be a start.