How to reimagine urban spaces

A Review of Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow (Viking, 2016. $28.00) It might seem strange to hear that the “urban revolution” proposed in Street Fight is being led by a former transportation commissioner in New York City.

Long live the revolutionary bureaucracy! Janette Sadik-Khan was the head of the massive transportation department in NYC during the Mayor Bloomberg years (2007-2013), and this book synthesizes what she accomplished there with what she would like to revolutionize in planning departments across the United States. It might also seem strange to hear that this book on urban planning and streetscaping is a passionate and at times thrilling examination of what is possible in the future of all cities. I want this book in the hands of all the people responsible for decisions about Greensboro traffic safety, bike lanes, public transportation, parking and pedestrian joy.

And the people responsible for all these decisions include, you know, the people! Decisions about urban livability should not be left up to the planners and politicians. Sadik-Khan makes it clear that there is plenty of room for nimble and quick-acting citizens to change the way our city looks and feels, and to do so with such obvious beauty and utility that no one would wish to undo what they have done. Rise up, Greensboro, and think about redesigning crosswalks, reshaping Elm Street and making downtown a pedestrian paradise. Sadik-Khan knows that the streets of our cities have been planned, developed and maintained for the car and the car alone. Some of the most useful features of Street Fight are the before-and-after photographs of city streets redesigned to reduce the hegemony of the automobile. Image after image shows the good that can be done with simple ideas like creating bike lanes between the sidewalk and the parking lane, or creating “pedestrian spaces” in the middle of heavily-trafficked areas. Much of this book demands a reclaiming of the city for the person on foot. For Sadik-Khan (and her guiding force, Jane Jacobs), walkability is the defining characteristic of great cities. Her simple understanding is that cars are not good for the businesses in downtowns–people are good for businesses: “Walkable, active streets generate their own public order, and their foot traffic fuels local shops.”

Furthermore, “the first priority of every city should be the physical and psychological safety of people on the street.” Sadik-Khan cites numerous statistics and studies on traffic safety in cities and wonders why we’re not horrified by 32,765 car-related deaths in 2014 (which is more than three times the number killed on 9/11 plus all the American servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.) She takes some probably deserved credit for reducing the pedestrian deaths in NYC dramatically in her tenure.

Street Fight reads like one long manifesto—it’s always on fire for new thinking about urban design. Her criticism of the old models of urban planning are withering. She knows that “the same tired arguments and assumptions about how streets work that led to congestion and paralysis in cities for most of the half century are still being used to block and reverse change today.”

And if any conversation with any community leader begins with his or her belief that we need more parking, then immediately hand them this book. No mantra is more insidious than the repeated and entirely unimaginative call for more parking. Greensboro is loaded with parking;

what Greensboro needs are fresh ideas about how to reimagine city streets and sidewalks as “people first” environments. In NYC, nearly 70% of the daily commute involves public transportation, bicycles or walking. I would guess that in Greensboro that number hovers in the single digits. I had the strange, tingling joy of the hope of transformation while reading Street Fight. But I’m a complete novice in the world of urban planning. I haven’t been beaten down by the years of backwardslooking models and tired cliches about the impossibility of change. Perhaps Street Fight can embolden the brave in government to fight for change, and perhaps it can embolden the civic-minded citizen to imagine new possibilities. In any case, this book is a place to begin thinking about how we want our city to look and feel. !

BRIAN LAMPKIN, a member of the avant garde/spiritual trio, The Difficulties, has an MA in Creative Writing from ECU and is co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Downtown Greensboro.