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Archive for June 2012

“Make Way for People” aims to turn streets, plazas into better public space

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Yesterday Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the catchily named “Make Way for People,” a program to incrementally improve public space and the public experience in Chicago largely via adapting existing street right-of-way.

On the whole, I think the initiative is well-guided. As Galina Tachieva writes in her excellent Sprawl Repair Manual, Americans tend to view thoroughfares as our public spaces, in contrast to the European emphasis on squares and plazas. If we’re ever to view our streets as more than ways to speed autos along as rapidly as possible, incremental efforts like this are needed. That said, I think we need a lot more detail about the specifics, particularly the “People Plazas.” Initial thoughts:

People Plazas will utilize public-private partnerships to spruce up existing CDOT plazas, squares and triangles via “new programming and retail opportunities.” No specific locations as of yet.

The first two areas I thought of in Chicago were the Apple-North/Clybourn area and the Polish Triangle in Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village. The first as an example of a relatively successful public-private partnership (at least until we rename it the “Apple” station), and the second as an example of a public space that has struggled to really take off despite valiant efforts to the contrary. I’m curious how these “People Plazas” will differ from these existing efforts. How long will contracts be? Are we talking about mere cosmetic improvements, addition of exclusive retail stands, performance space?

People Spots: platforms “adjacent to sidewalks,” about 50 feet long and seven feet wide. The diagrams show the space taken from parking lanes to install various seasonal relaxation facilities. A tentative location in Lakeview will install seating, tables and “semi-permanent” landscaping for $40,000. The other project locations include one in Andersonville and two in Kenwood.

This is the initiative that I think has the highest chances of success, particularly when placed on vibrant commercial corridors such as Clark St. I’ve often wanted to eat some snacks or food I picked up, but there wasn’t a nearby park or store-controlled outdoor space to do so. These types of platforms would serve as communal spaces along these thoroughfares to stop and rest a bit. At the same time, I hope there’s a good plan for maintenance of these spaces: tragedy of the commons is, well, tragic.

People Streets: Converting culs-de-sac, dead-end streets and other areas of “excess” asphalt into “year-round hardscape public spaces.” The first trial of this is on the 2300 block of N. Kenmore, in the middle of the DePaul campus, just south of Fullerton. According to the Sun-Times, this could theoretically be made permanent based on community demand.

These seem like summer street festivals and block parties writ large for a long period of time — not a bad thing by any means (I enjoy the many summer festivals! However, I would like to know more about the criteria for choosing these streets, and in particular for any theoretical permanent closures. I don’t think Chicago will feature a large number of culs-de-sac or turn into a dysfunctional suburban street network any time soon, but having attended a university which thought it had permanently closed off a street, I think it’s important to know how these “People Streets” will be chosen — traffic counts? type of street? etc.

People Alleys: Allowing the use of city alleys for music or art exhibitions in hours when they are not used.

This is the initiative I am the most skeptical about. Outside of the Loop, Chicago alleys are largely populated by garages and garbage cans — which, don’t get me wrong, I like: I can still remember the first time I visited Manhattan after moving to Chicago and how I was struck by the presence of giant piles of trash bags on the street. Chicago’s alleys help minimize similar unsightliness, curb cuts and sidewalk-fronting garages. But I think that these very things make them the hardest to convert to useful public space, in the sense of recreational and economic public space.

As a sidenote, I wonder how the People Spots and Streets will address the city’s privatized parking meter lease that haunts efforts such as this. It’s my understanding that the city must pay for the removal of any on-street parking spots — this could become a large financial headache.

Overall, I applaud the city and the mayor for these initiatives. Despite the lack of detail, I think these are positive and laudable efforts to reclaiming our public streets for mixed uses, a step to really creating a vibrant street community.

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Written by Andrew ACG

June 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized