Throughout history the construction of roads has brought success to empires, connecting cultures and sharing knowledge, these places once signified power and affluence are now dreaded by those who make their daily pilgrimage through the rush hour. The separation of civilization and urban space from natural spaces frequently leads to the perception that urban space is somehow lesser, degraded and lacking aesthetic appeal when compared to the ‘natural world’. Considering that urban spaces and infrastructure are built by humans, logically these spaces should meet the ideal standards for human habitat; however these spaces often feel disjointed, illogical, and unappealing. One of the arguments occurring around urban space is the concern that cities are increasingly built to serve the needs of automobiles and not the people who call these environments home.
As urban space has been influenced by the changing modes of travel in which citizens’ move between surrounding environments, so has cultural perceptions of the quality and purpose of these environments. In his book Just Sustainabilities; Julian Agyeman discusses how streets have transformed from early civilization, as places used to connect people to medicine, government, business, trade, as well as to each other and social forums. Modern development, as described by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), is designed to ensure “operational efficiency, comfort, safety, and convenience for the motorist”. As automobiles have grown in popularity people and governments have adopted the paradigm of autonormativity, accepting automobiles as the default mode of traversing space. In his study of Automobility in Atlanta, Georgia, Henderson points out the underlying threats for auto-dominate culture: “Automobility embodies deeper social conflicts. One of those embodiments is secessionist automobility, or automobility as a medium for physical separation and physical expression of racist and anti-urban, not all secession are racist. Nevertheless the shared vision is one of secession from urban space, resistance to the compact patterns that support transit, and abhorrence to resolving difficult urban problems through cooperation and consensus- secession by car is easier.”(Henderson 2006, 304) Rather than increase connectivity to government, businesses, and social forums, built environments dependent on cars show a tendency to reinforce physical separation by restricting who the infrastructure is designed to work for.
Development patterns that follow the ‘fordist model’ have enabled urban sprawl, which contributed to the growing separation of affordable housing from employment, distanced neighborhood communities and changed the social space of streets. Focusing on the growing disparity between infrastructure built for auto-dependent transportation, and the safety and quality of communities that surround these spaces, movements like ‘Right-Sizing Streets’ have emerged to address street design and advocate for reconfiguring of street space to better serve communities. Right-Sizing streets means repurposing streets to provide more comfort and safety for its full range of users, not just automobiles, but community children, bicyclists, pedestrians, rapid transit and other alternatives that could potentially be adapted to better suit the needs of the community. Project for Public Spaces describes Right-Sizing, “Picture a four lane road that was built thirty years ago in an undeveloped area, but that now has housing, shops, and an elementary school in close vicinity. The needs of the community surrounding that road have changed over three decades” (Toth, 2013). Reallocating space to transportation systems that suit the need of the existing community, can be done by converting vehicular lanes into alternate use, reconfiguring parking spaces so they benefit local businesses and act as potential buffers separating cyclists and pedestrians from automobiles. Right-Sizing works to redesign street space and offers the potential to transform street into place; places where communities grow, places where people work, live and play rather than just passing through in the isolation of personal automobiles.
The belief of the Right-Sizing program is centered on transit-oriented development with concern for making streets more livable for the community, and providing equal rights to space regardless of whether individuals rely on public transportation or private automobile. In his chapter on Space And Place, Ageymen does advocate for additional caution stating, “some low-income communities and neighborhood of color worry that changes such as the introduction of bicycle lanes, street accessibility improvements, mass transit expansions and upgrades, and pedestrian zones placements will foster gentrification”(Ageymen 2013, 113). In this way urban renewal could actually contribute to reduced social equity and loss of community heritage; understanding the social and economic implications of transportation redevelopment, communities and government should guide redevelopment towards a more cooperative function and advocate inclusive panning. Regardless of its potential risks, Right-Sizing offers the opportunity to increase connectivity and promote positive social structure, care for urban communities as well as urban environments.
With steadily degrading social exchange, increasing cultural pressures, economic instability, and loss of natural environments, the way in which space is used as a method for travel between places can drastically influence local communities. Alternative transportation development can redefine urban space, creating gravitational points for people within communities to connect; land-use patterns that reduce the need to travel by private automobile offer more variety in urban space and allow for diverse activities. More diversity in space as well as users can also contribute to more vibrant economies and opportunities for different social groups to interact. Viewing roads and streets space as places for public interaction can influence the way infrastructure is built, enhance features that promote social space and livability, creating Right-Sized communities.
Agyeman, J. (2013) Introducing Just Sustainabiliites Policy, Planning and Practice (pp.96-135). London: Zed Books.
Henderson, J. (2006) ‘secessionist automobility: racism, anti-urbanism, and the politics of automobility in Atlanta, Georgia’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research(pp.293-307)
Myrick, P. (2011, April 21). The power of place: A new dimension for sustainable development. Retrieved from http://www.pps.org/blog/the-power-of-place-a-new-dimension-for-sustainable-development/
Toth, G. (2013, January 22). Welcome to the rightsizing streets guide. Retrieved from http://www.pps.org/blog/welcome-to-the-rightsizing-streets-guide/