Talking Transit with Taskforce Member Jan Cervelli
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The Tale of Two Streetscapes

Imagine you are walking along a sidewalk filled with a diverse collection of people of different ages and cultures interacting freely, the enticing aromas of outdoor eating establishments, live music, public art, and bordered by small businesses with glass storefronts, residences and schools. Imagine this streetscape to be active morning, noon, and night as people shift from work/school mode to evening relaxation and socializing. The environment is made comfortable by wide sidewalks and plazas with benches, shade trees, and night lighting. Air quality and overall health is good due to more walking, bicycles, and fewer cars. Imagine a modern, quiet, glass streetcar moving along at street level, sliding up to the curb. Riders freely jump on and off as wide glass doors open making the streetcar one and the same with the streetscape, feeding street life with activity like an artery carrying energy from stop to stop. 

 

Now imagine you are walking along a streetscape that is empty of people most of the day and night, bordered by closed storefronts or large chain franchises, vacant residences, and little public space that is neither safe or fit to stroll through, sit in, or interact with others. This streetscape is devoid of human comforts as there are few people to accommodate. Likewise, few people are present to observe and intervene in the event of unsafe behavior. Imagine this streetscape as being dominated by the automobile which is moving through at a high rate of speed making it dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles. 

 

These are two very different streetscapes with two very different levels of street activity – both day and night. The first streetscape is thriving socially, culturally, healthfully, environmentally, safely, and economically. The second is vital only to the extent that it accommodates the automobile to move quickly through until traffic becomes congested and logjammed. Parking lots consume the little public space available. Sadly, it is this streetscape that is all too prevalent in cities across our nation and right here in South Bend and Mishawaka. 

 

Vital cities begin with vital street life. This is true of cities throughout the world.  Vital street life creates community and commitment to that community. Vital streets make residents and visitors more comfortable and safer. Vital streets bring social interaction and many eyes on the street that make safety, security, and interventions more likely. Studies have shown that vital streets promote small business which, in turn, promote vital streets. Small businesses influence their immediate public spaces by paying more attention to it than larger businesses. (Mehta, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Winter, 2011), 271-291.

 

The influential journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacob espoused that vibrant cities are those with higher levels of street activity, density, and social interaction. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) remains one of the most influential books in the history of American city planning. She argues that more active street life creates more "eyes on the street", opportunities for human interaction, and sense of local community. The modern streetcar is an essential infrastructural element of vital streets, at the intimate neighborhood streetscape scale as well as a sustainable artery connecting streetscapes and neighborhoods to a larger, vital community.