Embracing the “Public” in Public Use

A “beach” in downtown Detroit offers citizens a public space to make their own — a successful feat of city planning.

We travel down streets everyday, but rarely do we ask how this messy mix of buildings, people, and infrastructure came to be. Who planned this?

Planning used to be fairly straightforward — it came from one person with a vision. A planner would look at a public space, decide the best use for it, and then inform the public. We’re all familiar with the spaces created by these men of vision. Pierre L’Enfant and his Washington, D.C. Lucia Costa and his Brasilia. Walt Disney and Tomorrowland.

But the problem with public spaces is that the public insists on using them. So for every famous man who plans a grand boulevard lined with monuments celebrating democracy, you’ve got a much less famous man who decides it’s the perfect place to sell T-shirts.

Streets are public spaces, and people are constantly adapting, molding, and reinventing these spaces to fit their needs, which don’t necessarily fit the vision of the planner. But that’s exactly what makes a street interesting — the ways people choose to use it. I would argue that any public space that isn’t being adapted by the public is, simply put, a poorly designed space.

So, given this, what’s the best way to plan? And if streets are constantly changing as they’re used, what’s the role of the planner?

At The Loop, we’ve just completed interviews for a firm to develop a master plan for the Business Loop, and we’ve been asking ourselves this very question.

The road formerly known as U.S. Route 40 might have been planned by someone at some point, but over the decades, the street has taken on a very different role than the cross-country highway it once was. With very little formal planning or infrastructure upgrades, it nevertheless became an economically healthy street. Businesses focusing on home improvement and autos were successful, so other folks soon opened similar businesses nearby. Customers expanded their shopping footprint and the street became appealing to more businesses. Author Steven Johnson describes the creation of a business district in terms of “swerve,” and businesses continued to swerve to The Loop until the street turned into some of the best Saturday morning retail in town.

Any planner will have to understand the strengths of the street and help us build upon them, but they’ll also have to realize that some of the best planning isn’t planned. It’s not about managing every little aspect of the street; it’s about creating the right conditions for swerve to happen.

A street in Detroit benefiting from a well-tailored plan.

How will we do this? We’ve already started the process by asking people how the street could work better. A planner’s job is to listen to this input and translate it into a mix of infrastructure, landscaping, signage, and art—in short, to create public spaces along the street so people can continue to adapt The Loop to fit their needs.

We want the public to be a part of this process. We’ll be hosting meetings, taking surveys, and posting our ideas online because we want a public street that is truly made for and by the people.

This article originally appeared in the Columbia Business Times.

City Shots

The Potential of COMO’s Public Art

Not too long ago, three new Gateways were illuminated in The District , the culmination of years of planning. (You can read up on the project here.) As part of the public input process, one suggestion offered was a roundabout in the middle of Broadway featuring a statue of Daniel Boone. Although interesting from both a historical and a traffic management perspective, we wanted our Gateways to be something more than a statue in a park.

I spoke with Lyz Crane, of ArtPlace America, at the beginning of The District’s planning process for the Gateways project. ArtPlace America funds arts-based projects that “help strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities,” and Lyz stressed that public art should be about connections — opening up pathways between geographical areas, groups of people, and differing points of view. That’s certainly a more dynamic and exciting view of what art can accomplish for a city.

Successful public art is compelling enough that people will swerve off their well-worn paths in order to experience it. This means art can bring to life an underused route through the city, attract customers to an overlooked collection of shops, or bridge the gap between people in separate communities.

More and more, we’re seeing art used to enhance these physical connections and encourage people to discover something new about their world. The True/False Film Festival, for instance, uses art installations to draw visitors down alleys commonly used by locals as shortcuts.

One alley in Detroit made this approach permanent, expanding the notion of what’s considered a gathering place with murals, benches, and revolving art exhibits.

The District’s Light Hubs are located at entrance points to downtown as a way to entice visitors to explore just a little further; images of leaves and birds on the Fourth Street globes welcome cyclists and walkers off the MKT Nature Trail, while the iron and steel globes on Tenth Street near Columbia College remind us of an era when trails were rails and students travelled into town via the Wabash line.

Art is also about creating a swerve in perspective. The Light Hub on Fifth Street commemorates Sharp End, Columbia’s historic African American neighborhood. The globes physically bridge the divide between the north and south sections of downtown, which were created by forced racial segregation — a divide so strong it was actually formalized in an old city plan. As we dart across the street today with relative ease, we reflect on how that once was not so simple for our citizens.

The Business Loop has its own historical connections to celebrate. Historic Highway 40, as The Loop was once known, connected Kansas City and St. Louis. I-70 now serves as both a physical divide for our city and a gateway into it. Where we take that understanding will be the subject of much conversation as we begin the planning process for the corridor.

Lyz Crane also stressed that art should be a thoughtful and integrated part of any planning process, and we intend to follow her advice. We look forward to discovering all the creative ways we might entice you to swerve from your regular route to visit us here on The Loop.

This article originally appeared in the Columbia Business Times.

City Shots

City Shots

Pop-Up Bike Lanes

Standing along Pine Street in St. Louis, watching a pop-up bike lane in action, I struck up a conversation with a 64-year-old MetroBus driver about bicycles. As a kid, he would ride through the streets of downtown St. Louis balancing on his handlebars. His antics landed him in the hospital more than once. “I gave my mother the fits,” he says with a smile.

I had traveled to St. Louis with city council members Ian Thomas and Mike Trapp for the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. We spent the morning watching volunteers temporarily transform a section of street into a protected bike lane, and we spent the afternoon in a DIY workshop leaning how to make these quick, cheap, and temporary changes ourselves.

The volunteers somehow turned colorfully painted tires, potted plants, temporary signs, and a lot of white duct tape into a bike lane for the day. As bikes and cars travelled down Pine, volunteers adjusted the tires and added signs based on what they observed. It was a playful and functional public space — and a tangible start to a permanent bike lane.

To a casual observer, the Business Loop doesn’t have a lot going for it when it comes to accessible and welcoming public spaces. Limited sidewalks, crosswalks that are few and far between, and missing curb cuts send a clear message to people on foot and on bikes: You aren’t welcome. But The Loop does have an asset other areas of town don’t, which is space between the curbs — a full five lanes of road waiting to be transformed. And in the words of Janette Sadik-Khan, the visionary head of New York City’s Department of Transportation, “If you can change the street, you can change the world.”

I stood there a while longer with my new friend, the Metro driver, watching people travel up and down the bike lane. As he regaled me with stories of his fearless youth, I marveled at how infrastructure is often less about building a street than it is about building a community.

This article originally appeared in the Columbia Business Times.

Street Fight

City Shots

City Shots

City Shots

Two-lane roundabout, no one fusses, and all the drivers yield to pedestrians. I love my hometown.

A photo posted by Carrie Gartner (@carriegartner) on