Making great streets

Pub date July 15, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

GREEN CITY There’s a growing movement to transform San Francisco’s streets into safe, vibrant public spaces, part of an international trend that has drawn together disparate partners around the belief that roadways shouldn’t simply be conduits for moving automobiles.

Recent advances include the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s approval of a package of 45 bicycle projects and the success of the Sunday Streets program, a series of temporary road closures to cars (the next one is this Sunday, July 12, in the Mission District).

And there are new players on the scene, from Streetsblog SF (see "Street fighters," 1/14/09) to the San Francisco Great Streets Project (, a newly formed organization sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), the Livable Streets Initiative, and the Project for Public Spaces.

The Great Streets Project focuses on facilitating temporary conversions of streets into plazas (such as the new 17th Street Plaza at Castro and Market streets), parties, and other carfree spaces and with creating a civic conversation about the role of roads by bringing in renowned urban thinkers such as Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who spoke at the main library July 6 and sat down for an interview with the Guardian the next day.

"The heart and soul of a city is its public pedestrian space," said Peñalosa, who banned parking on sidewalks and expanded Bogotá’s protected bikeways, ciclovias (temporary road closures that were the model for Sunday Streets), and bus rapid transit system, creating an urban renaissance that he has since promoted in cities around the world.

"It became clear that the way we build cities could make people so much happier," Peñalosa said, noting how such urban design concepts dovetailed with his advocacy for the poor. "In a poor city, the inequality is felt most during leisure time … My main concerns are equity and happiness and the way cities can contribute to those things."

Peñalosa noted that "the 20th century was a terrible century for human habitat. Cars took over for people. Later we realized that was a big mistake." Such growth patterns, Peñalosa said, are simply unsustainable in the 21st century, particularly as Asia and Africa modernize.

Many European cities have taken aggressive steps to correct that mistake, but in the U.S. — whose dominant economic position during those years created the most car-dependent infrastructure on the planet — change has come slowly.

"Change is difficult, but change is already happening," he said, noting the strong carfree movements in San Francisco, New York City, and other U.S. cities.

Peñalosa transformed Bogotá at a time when the country was besieged by a violent civil war, timing he said was more propitious than unlikely. As with the current global warming imperatives and the traffic congestion that is choking many big cities, times of crisis can be moments of opportunity.

"When the crisis is so big, people are willing to risk different things and make experiments," Peñalosa said.

While most San Franciscans have yet to truly embrace the transition from car culture, Great Streets Project proponents are using temporary projects to push the envelope and gradually introduce new ideas into the public realm.

"It’s important for everyone to come into this with a spirit of experiment," said SFBC program director Andy Thornley. "Presenting these things as trials helps people get comfortable with the ideas."

SPUR director Gabriel Metcalf said temporary projects often bypass the need for cumbersome and expensive environmental studies and outreach efforts, placing innovative urban design concepts on public display as ongoing experiments.

"They allow you to make adjustments. It’s an option that exists with public spaces that you don’t have with buildings," Metcalf said. "It de-escalates the fear people have over change."

Plus, as the project’s director Kit Hodge notes, temporary placements let transportation planners and advocates try out new ideas instead of just endlessly studying them. As she put it, "San Francisco has a tradition of creating great plans that don’t get implemented."

The prime example is Market Street, an inefficient street for automobiles and a dangerous one for bicycles and pedestrians, and one that has been subject to countless studies about how to make it more livable. Yet little changes. "You need to achieve as much consensus as possible," Peñalosa said, "but in the end, you have to take risks."

Or as Metcalf put it, "It’s time to start enjoying some of the fruits of urbanity that we’ve been denying ourselves."