Corridors and Clay

To make citizens think about their streets’ potential, give them hard facts. Or clay buildings.

How can you rally neighbors to reimagine the look and feel of their surrounding streets? Two New Yorkers offer different methods. George S., a veteran of the 1980s’ East Village graffiti scene, works alone, surreptitiously dropping homemade clay figurines around town. Mark Gorton approaches municipal transportation officials to press systemic changes. In an era when cities summon starchitects to engineer magic, these men alter New York’s flow at street level.

George leaves four-square-inch clay models of loft buildings in pedestrians’ paths throughout Brooklyn. Gorton, who once designed market-timing software for hedge funds, has made a full-time business of strategically rallying for wider sidewalks and grander plazas. Both men believe that buildings are a city’s outerwear, but streets define a city’s veins and chance encounters there provide its pulse.

George says his art mocks expensive condos with doormen and ornaments with how they make streets seem more uptight than the factories they’ve replaced. “Developers figure out ways to cut off blocks,” says the sculptor. “This is a statement: I’m part of the street.” The statement, George admits, “isn’t exactly legal.” (Hence the withheld last name.) But the spontaneity it invokes drives civic vision. He’s seen people discussing the sculptures, or giggling over them. “It’s almost a gift,” says George. “You stumble on something and change your moment.”

Gorton doesn’t stumble. Or giggle. After years of evading trucks as he pedaled to work, he studied Department of Transportation methods and found inadequate measures for bike or pedestrian access. So he started hiring programmers to create an open-source Web site to advance balanced approaches. Then he formed a partnership with two veteran nonprofits, Transportation Alternatives and Project for Public Spaces . Together, the three outfits form the New York City Streets Renaissance campaign. TA manages outreach and PPS conducts public design workshops while Gorton handles software and strategy. All three organize block associations, civic groups, and business associations to seek a municipal “comprehensive pedestrian blueprint.” This would invigorate shopping corridors and smooth residential ones.

Judging from standing-room crowds at the campaign’s March exhibition at the Municipal Arts Society, that idea has heft. Citizens applauded to hear how a Chicago alderman and a trio of stickballers used wide sidewalks and traditional games to draw out elderly and underage neighbors. Tresa Horney, who managed the exhibition for Transportation Alternatives, says such testimonials awaken residents. “Getting people to expect more out of their street,” she says, “is hard.”

Pedestrians don’t often form expectations about street life in part because so much of what makes street life vital is spontaneous, like hearing a musician or stumbling over a clay building. So Gorton’s campaign got hard data about streets’ health. A TA survey found people who live on “heavy-traffic streets” six times likelier to maroon their kids indoors than people who live on calmer streets. (They also report having fewer than half as many friends.) Pairing public education with behind-the-scenes meetings, the campaign lobbies senior city Transportation officials for a coherent plan. Their current goals include bike lanes, public transit enhancement, and street landscaping to clear parking for delivery trucks while offering space for café owners and wide barricades for skateboarders.

George’s bid to “change your moment” and the Streets Renaissance call for corralling cars echoes Jane Jacobs’ 1961 warning against overzealous masterplanning. These days, architects rather than bureaucrats tend to overween public debate. But beyond CAD wizardry, a parking lane can easily become a third-base line or a high-rise a toy. The street yields discoveries you can’t see from a skyscraper.

VENTURING OUT: Small and free artwork can strike rueful or elegiac notes, as you can find in Berlin. And the Streets Renaissance Campaign’s ideas can drive simple but thorough transformation, as the work of Danish consultant Jan Gehl articulates. Here in the states, we still seek Jacobs’ wisdom in planning vibrant spaces. Alex Garvin , a city planner, called at one of the Streets Renaissance campaign’s lectures for the “mixed-use public street” as a sounder pursuit of Jacobs’ legacy than the “mixed-use public building.” (Clay or otherwise.) Let us know which sages should shape our streets.

Of course, cars aren’t the newest or darkest threat to civic life. There’s the danger that kids on open streets will stay inside playing video games. How can street design and public space promote healthy lifestyles in different kinds of neighborhoods? The cleverest reply wins a Frisbee and a lunch of your favorite street food.

SPEAKING OUT: Sometimes politicians join public theater. A New York City Housing commissioner once shocked a sit-in at her office by appearing as soon as protestors started yelling for her: “Shut the #$!* up! I’m the commissioner! What do you want?” The protest lost steam there, and the city carried on with its existing policy. Has a city official ever opened your eyes? Have you ever started a project that changed course with popular imagination? Tell us about it.

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