Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Five ideas for Freo from...New York

Dean Cracknell is the author of this post. He is a Freo devotee dedicated to creating interesting, diverse places for people and is a guest contributor to The Fremantle Doctor blog. 

Dean can be followed on Twitter by checking out: @city_pragmatist

The hustle and bustle of New York’s streets is legendary. Cars, taxis and pedestrians compete for the limited space on the crowded streets.

The Big Apple is reimagining the way people use its public spaces. New York is shifting its thinking from roads for cars to streets for people. City Hall is redesigning streets to include mini parks, street vendors, moveable seating, potted plants, safe pedestrian crossings and bicycle lanes to attract more people. The program has been very successful and is being copied around the world.

The picture above shows the transformation of Madison Square on 5th Avenue, which used to be a confusing, traffic-choked roadway. If you want to find out how the streetscape revolution was done, this 5 minute video clip is excellent.

As I was walking around Manhattan last year, I started thinking about William H. Whyte’s famous observation that:

“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

Whyte noted that people vote with their feet – they use spaces that are interesting, safe and comfortable. The opposite also applies.

So, what can Freo learn from New York? Here are some ideas (also see the picture above) -

1. Provide more moveable seats

Firstly, well done to the City of Freo for including moveable seats as part of its placemaking efforts for Kings Square. I think it has been a real success. Why?

Seats are an invitation for people to stay in a place. A place can be created just by adding simple things like comfortable seats, especially where people can watch other people. A space becomes more meaningful when moveable chairs are available. The moveable chairs provide people with an option to arrange the chairs to suit their situation or mood. 

The success of the Kings Square trial suggests that moveable seats could also be provided in other places.

2. Encourage street vendors

People like food and drinks.

Encouraging street vendors is another invitation for people to use and stay in a space. Street vendors add life and interest to the street and are also another pair of eyes to monitor what’s going on around them. The assortment of street vendors at the back of this photo adds a market-like feel to what used to be a busy roadway.

3. Cars still have their place

The obvious objection to the streetscape revolution is that it would cause traffic chaos. But, as they explain in the Streetfilms video, traffic is still flowing down 5th Avenue. Let’s be blunt, Fremantle doesn’t have a traffic problem when compared with New York, Toronto, London, San Francisco or other major cities where these ideas have been introduced. Cars are important and should still have the right to use the street. But cars should use the street on people’s terms in our town centres, not the other way around as it is currently.

4. It is difficult to design a space that won’t attract people

We need to provide a range of choices for people. Sitting next to two lanes of vehicle traffic isn’t the preference of some people. But, they do it here on 5th Avenue. Why?

It feels welcoming and has a range of people-watching opportunities. It also looks as though someone gives a damn about the street. It looks cared for. The large potted plants and huge rocks provide a barrier between the people and cars and make it feel safe. People use the new public spaces even though the popular Madison Square Garden is just to the right of the picture. Parks are great, but don’t provide the alternative attractions that a street can provide – people, movement and colour.

5. More greenery

Greenery softens a place and makes it feel more welcoming. Human evolution has hard-wired us to appreciate green spaces. This street has 3 types – street trees, garden beds and large-potted plants. The more greenery the better!

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