Assignment Two: Final Research Paper
Reinterpreting Streets as Sites of Collective Culture
Tim Cook 301024056 Tutor: Jason Petty
Abstract: As motor vehicles became common in the middle of the twentieth century, ideas that the most important role of the street was to facilitate vehicle journeys and that the mixing of traffic and pedestrians was inherently dangerous dominated thoughts on the design of streets. The complete separation of pedestrians and traffic was deemed ideal, and this has contributed to streets becoming devoid of any sense of place. In many streets of the modern city there is an attempt to divide space in terms of legitimate and illegitimate user groups, with the regulation of movement and flow of people considered vital. Clear boundaries and separate spaces have been formed in order to diffuse conflict in public spaces. However, this spatial purification of disorder and difference deprives us of engagement and conflict with one another, and this opportunity to go beyond our defined boundaries of self is central to civilized social life. Our traffic‐centred conception of the street has led to the creation of dysfunctional spaces that can intimidate and confuse. This essay examines the role of the urban street, a space in which social values are expressed and contested. It explores the potential of these streets; the terrain of moral and social conflict, as sites of collective culture, spaces that construct a sense of identity. In it I will argue that mere improvements to the urban street are not enough, and that fundamental changes are required in how we perceive its role and hence go about designing it. It reinterprets streets as sites of collective culture, spaces that construct a sense of identity. Hierarchies must be broken down, the street no longer operating as the socially constructed boundary between public and private space, but as a space that celebrates diversity, the spectacle, the performance. The street has the potential to become a space that empowers the individual; that rejects the way social and cultural difference is structured within notions of hierarchy and spatial dominance.
Streets provide the city with so much more than a circulatory system. As Jane Jacobs (1961) wrote; “streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs” (p. 55). Streets are an integral component of the landscape that makes up everyday life, providing environments in which much social life and learning occurs. But the decrease in value placed on public use has contributed to the urban street becoming devoid of any sense of place. There is now growing concern that streets are becoming "privatized,” denying people basic rights of use, access, and enjoyment (Francis, 1991). Urban streets have been designed with the needs of drivers and motor traffic put first, resulting to a decline in street democracy. Designing streets to facilitate traffic movement, rather than as places of their own right, has reduced the richness and variety of public space and its uses (Reid, 2008). Though designed to provide access, these streets function as barriers for pedestrians. The shortcomings of this approach are becoming more apparent and the role of the street must be readdressed. In order to rebalance the functions of place and movement within a street it must be reprogrammed and become a shared space, giving users of the street more space and freedom. Society must awake from its mindless traverse through space and respond to social encounters these spaces can trigger and develop, learning to deal with conflict as part of everyday life. Contrary to Le Corbusier’s vision of the streets as a “machine of traffic,” we must radically rethink the role of the street and free the individual from conforming to its hierarchies. Recent changes in attitude toward city life have supported changes in the design, planning, and management of these urban environments and have gone some ways to transforming urban streets into more safe, secure, and comfortable places; leading to the emergence of new forms of urban streets (Francis, 1991). "Pedestrianization" is one of the strongest and most influential of the street redesign movements that have changed the public environment of many cities (Francis, 1991). Successful efforts in Europe led to its application in America, inspiring planners to set out to revitalize declining downtowns through the closure or restriction of main streets to traffic and the construction of elaborate and expensive pedestrian malls. Though it has experienced several shifts in intent and application, the pedestrianization movement remains at its core a commercialisation effort designed to maximize retail sales by creating a more comfortable relationship between moving vehicles and shoppers. Retail sales and private control often ensure the “success” of these projects; however qualities such as commercial diversity, public access, and street life are often ignored (Francis, 1991). Another movement in street design and management falls under the themes of street "livability" or "sociability" (Levine 1984). Pioneered by environmental design researchers such as William Whyte and Donald Appleyard, the "livable streets" movement recognizes the importance of the street environment for the social life of cities. It emphasizes opportunities for greater safety, security, and social contact, particularly on residential streets, where traffic and street quality directly affect residents' satisfaction (Appleyard & Lintell, 1977). A key component of the “livable streets” movement is the move to attain the balance between pedestrians and cars through the design of “shared surfaces”. This breaks down the hierarchies of the street by eliminating any physical distinctions such as curbs and level changes, and so doesn’t confine user groups into specific zones. These shared surfaces remove the presumption that the car driver has right of way by removing demarcation of users by level. Shared surfaces are designed to influence how people understand and use them (Reid, 2008). Though this approach can be very
effective, it is only suitable in areas where vehicle flows and speeds are low. Regardless, the extent to which the benefits of shared space can be achieved without shared surfaces, as well as the gradations between complete segregation of traffic and other users and complete sharing of space, should be fully explored as the design of our streets evolves. The shared street, however, should mean so much more than a space shared between different modes of commute, it should address our social construct too. Public space is a domain in which social values are asserted and constructed. Streets are the terrain of social encounters and political protest, sites of domination and resistance, places of pleasure and anxiety (Fyfe, 1998). Society is uncomfortable with difference, the “unconforming other” in the streets of the city. Politicians and the media play a major role in exploiting our society’s sensitivities in this regard, often demonizing events and people and encouraging containment and regulation of those at risk of hurting themselves or others. Society’s fear of crime in streets has made us nervous about exhibiting behaviours seen as different from the mainstream (Malone, 2002). As Karen Malone (2002) wrote, “All boundaries, whether national, global or simply street names on a road map are socially constructed. They are as much the products of society as are other social relations that mark the landscape” (p. 158). Boundaries construct our sense of identity in the places we inhabit and they organize our social space through geographies of power. For this reason, the boundaries we construct or remove play a pivotal role in the function of the city and its streets. Spaces that have strongly defined boundaries and value their internal uniformity and order discourage difference and cultural or social difference, which appears disruptive in these environments. On the other hand, spaces that have weakly defined or open boundaries encourage diversity and social mixing. Spaces should be designed to understand and celebrate difference and diversity in identity and activity. Intolerance and moral censure have been the have instigators of much of our boundary making in the development of cities. In the postmodern city, the past boundaries of fences and walls have been joined by new boundaries of surveillance and security. Looking back in history, it is clearly evident that exclusion and intolerance of difference in the spatial and social organization of cities are not new phenomena. Public space has long been regarded as a contested domain and the subjection of social groups to political and moral censure has occurred throughout history. In nineteenth century New York, for instance, women, along with their delinquent children, were subjected to arrest and institutionalization under the vagrancy and truancy laws when they ventured unchaperoned into public space (Stansell, 1986). During the same period in New York the trend to enclose and contain children in playgrounds to protect them from the evils of the street developed. In late Victorian London, the streets were experienced simultaneously as a place of sexual danger and erotic delight, depending on one’s social class (Walkowitz, 1992). The Vagrancy and Malicious Trespass Act of 1839 in metropolitan London declared illegal a range of activities in the streets, which included football, flying a kite or any game considered to be an annoyance to inhabitants or passers‐by (Sercombe, 2000). Although people tend to romanticize the history of the street; its past openness and accessibility, while lamenting the privatization of public space in the modern city, history illustrates that public space is, and has been the site where conflicts of morality and social values have often been launched. This exemplifies why protests are staged in the streets. Street carnivals draw on this to become strategic political moment when minority groups attempt through the spectacle to
destabilize the hierarchy of spatial dominance ( Malone, 2002). Antoni Jach (1999) defines the carnival as; ...that which can’t be held, can’t be repressed, can’t be organized into neatness. The fear of politicians everywhere: the crowd in the street; the uncontrolled, uncontrollable display; the random, unpredictable event that punctuates the facade of normality, the facade of power. (p. 91). In many streets of the modern city there is an attempt to divide space in terms of legitimate and illegitimate user groups, with the regulation of movement and flow of people considered vital. Clear boundaries and separate spaces have been formed in order to diffuse conflict in public spaces. Shared value systems based on a vision of appropriate use and appropriate users of space are regulated and maintained (Malone, 2002). However, Sennet (1994) argues that the spatial purification of disorder and difference has important psychological and behavioural consequences; “Disorderly, painful events in the city are worth encountering, because they force us to engage with ‘otherness’, to go beyond one’s one defined boundaries of self, and thus central to civilized and civilizing social life”. He believes that without disorder and difference people cannot learn how to deal with conflict as part of their everyday life. The contemporary city is facing an urban design crisis encased in the larger social dilemma of how to reinvent an urban public life that promotes a sense of community and feeling of identity within the urban environment. A strong culturally derived theme of antiurbanism is embedded in our urban life and this is expressed through distorted media messages that permeate contemporary urban life. Media tend to portray urban streets as negative environments and they are dominated by narratives that define them as stages for gang activity or other threatening behaviours, this perception contributing to the ongoing privatization of our public spaces. New urban street design has the opportunity to break these negative perceptions and the hostile view of informal public life. Much is to be gained by redeveloping our approach to the design of urban streets to one grounded in public use; one that recognizes streets as playing larger social, economic, and ecological roles in the city. Reintroducing a sense of place into the urban street requires the democratisation of such spaces.
A democratic street is one that reflects the history as well as the social and economic diversity of the larger neighbourhood and city. Friendly to pedestrians and livable for residents, it also reflects social justice, economic health, and ecological vitality. The democratic street does not exclude the automobilist but provides space for vehicles by striking a more equitable balance with other street users, namely, pedestrians and bicyclists. (Francis, 1991, p. 28). The democratic street emphasizes safety and comfort but also addresses the needs for access of many different kinds of user groups, actively providing opportunities for discovery and challenge. Urban streets have the potential to be reinterpreted as sites of collective culture; spaces that construct a sense of identity. Through the breaking down of hierarchies, the street will no longer operate as the socially constructed boundary between public and private space, but as a space that celebrates diversity, the spectacle, the performance. Through rethinking our design approach to the urban street we gain a space that empowers the individual; that rejects the way social and cultural difference is structured within notions of hierarchy and spatial dominance. The function of the
street, now little more than access route, needs to be questioned and reprogrammed, reinstating it as a symbolic space for the construction and transmission of identity.
References Appleyard, D. & Lintell, M. (1977). The environmental quality of city streets: the residents' viewpoint. AlP Journal, 43, 84‐101. Francis, M. (1991). The making of democratic streets. New York: Columbia University Press. Fyfe, N. (1998). Images of the street: planning, identity and control in public space. London: Routledge. Jach, A. (1999). The Layers of the city. New South Wales: Hodder Headline. Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Vintage. Levine, C. (1984). Making city spaces lovable places. Psychology Today, June, 56‐63. Malone, K. (2002). Street life, youth, culture and competing uses of public space. Melbourne: Monash University. Reid, S. (2008). Civilised Streets. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. Sennet, R. (1994). Flesh and Stone, London: Faber. Sercombe, H. (2000). Opting for Inclusion, Queensland Stansell, C. (1986). City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789‐1860. New York: Alfred Knopf. Walkowitz, J. (1992). City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late‐Victorian London. London: Virago.