Democratizing streetscapes: Rethinking streets as public spaces

Note: This post was written by Cameron Peterson, MA student.

On February 24, 2011, I presented a poster at the MIT Transportation Showcase on the research that Julian and I have been undertaking to explore the theme of spatial justice as it relates to the streetscape (see earlier blog: Spatial justice on Södra Vägen). The poster, as seen below, was entitled “Democratizing  Streetscapes: Rethinking Streets as Public Spaces” and sought to highlight our research aims, initial findings, and the primary assumption fueling the research: that street space is allocated according to an autonormative paradigm, in which single-user vehicles dominate, and pedestrian spaces, bike lanes, and public transit lanes are relegated to a secondary status. And that’s not just us being paranoid! Remember, the fundamental guide to street design —the Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)—says that the purpose of street design is to ensure “operational efficiency, comfort, safety, and convenience for the motorist.”

Democratizing Streetscapes: Rethinking Streets as Public Spaces

Though populated primarily by MIT students, the exhibit was open to anyone whose research fit within its parameters. Twenty-five posters were selected to participate. The Showcase was publicized as a platform for “cutting-edge transportation research in all areas of mobility, including aviation, alternative vehicles, passenger rail, as well as key issues such as energy, sustainability, and security.” Held at the MIT Museum on Mass Ave in Cambridge, the event provided me – and Julian from afar (since he is still on sabbatical, as you can see from his surrounding posts) –  a good opportunity to define our research subject area, facilitate my ability to describe and defend it concisely, and, most importantly, receive feedback from students, interested observers, and professors/judges.

Surrounded by posters on the engineering possibilities of aviation systems and the construction of elevated walkways above Mumbai and positioned in a bit of an awkward corner, our poster still succeeded in receiving a good amount of foot traffic and interest. One memorable conversation took place with an undergraduate who was considering a similar subject area for her thesis. She considered the poster’s topic fascinating and had many questions about Copenhagen’s advances and what the paradigms meant. Most interestingly, she had grown up so thoroughly entrenched in the autonormative paradigm that she asked me how the streets were used before cars were on them! My impression was that she really could not envision a time that both had streets and did not have cars.

I reminded her how horse-and-buggies, wagons, streetcars, trolleys, horses, carts, bicycles, and people had used the streets for many, many years, and that, in the past, a greater amount of sharing of the streetscape occurred among these varied users. Her question was exactly the case-in-point for how successful government and industry have been in converting our streets to car and truck thoroughfares, replacing the notion that they should be anything else. Donald Appleyard’s pioneering research and book on Livable Streets, published in 1981, was ground-breaking not only for its insight into traffic’s effect on a neighborhood’s social interaction and health, but also for the awareness it brought to the acceptance of our streets as traffic conduits. Nevertheless, thirty years later, many more streets have been constructed, and relatively few strides have been made in democratizing our streetscapes.

The awareness and work being conducted to address the inequities, though, has grown, and one manifestation of this was the representative from who conversed with me about our research and offered his business card and assistance as we progress. Streetsblog, which started as a New York City-centric site in 2006 and has since expanded, describes its function as “a daily news source, online community and political mobilizer for the livable streets movement…[and] part of a growing coalition of individuals and organizations in cities around the world working to transform our cities by reducing dependence on private automobiles and improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.” With such a similar mission, we agreed that cooperation and collaboration toward further research and advocacy could be beneficial for us both.

I also greatly appreciated the attendees who challenged parts of our research. In particular, one of the MIT faculty who was serving as a judge asked me which factor had most influenced the development and continuation of the autonormative paradigm. I was not completely certain of my answer, since we are still in the relatively early stages of research, but posited that governance might have the largest impact. It seemed to me that the rules, regulations, laws, government contracts, committees, and standards utilized among the myriad government agencies and policymakers often held the ultimate authority in streetscape determination as well as functioned collectively as one of the largest obstacles to shifting the paradigm. The professor/judge challenged us to undertake greater research into the local differences among governance structures and policies to document how and why those had resulted in varying levels of democratized streets. Though I am not sure whether this is the path that Julian and I will undertake, it was a very interesting suggestion to consider, and compelled me to try to specify what route might engender the most significant outcome.

All in all, the MIT Transportation Showcase afforded me a great opportunity to attempt to define, describe, and support the reasons for and objectives of our research in the realm of democratizing streetscapes.

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  1. Eric McNulty April 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm - Reply

    Great post. I will be moderating a panel on sustainable transportation in NYC next week ( and one of the things that I asked the panelists to consider was “how green can we really get” so long as we operate on a model of one-person-plus-3,000 lbs of steel as our favored choice for getting from point A to point B. Cities I’ve visited where non-car alternatives work well (Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen to name three) put cars fairly far down in the hierarchy. Bicycles tend to come first, then pedestrians, then mass transit, then cars.

    This speaks to your inclination to look to governance at a key impediment to more democratic streets. When I commute by bicycle I am quite aware of how the “rules of the road” (including those that govern infrastructure choices) are written primarily to facilitate car/truck movement and not that of people and non-motorized vehicles.

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