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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Planning for the People

The Legacy of Jacobs and Whyte

By Mark Solof

Published in 2005, The High Cost of Free Parking has begun to influence planners and policymakers in cities across the country.

Dr. Shoup Prescribes . . .

  • "Performance pricing" of street parking according to the "85 percent rule," so that it is expensive enough to promote frequent turnover and keep 15 percent of spaces empty at all times.
  • "Parking benefit districts" which invest meter revenues in sidewalks, street trees, repairs and other public amenities.
  • Shared/community parking.
  • Parking maximums, not minimums.
  • More rational estimates of parking demand.
  • Off-site parking for both commercial and residential.
  • Use of smart technology, such as in-pavement sensors and meters with rates that vary according to demand.
  • Adaptive reuse of mall and big box parking lots.

Courtesy of Colin Driver/Borough of Somerville

The Borough of Sommerville, NJ closed Division Street to vehicular traffic and turned it into a pedestrian plaza and event space.

How do you create streets that are walkable and bikeable, part of lively downtowns and neighborhoods?

Planners and city officials need to take a careful look at how people actually travel in their communities and use public spaces. That is the guiding insight of what amounted to a revolution in the field of urban planning that began building  momentum in the 1950s.

Ivory tower planners in earlier decades sought to use their visions of orderly and rational living arrangements to inspire the wholesale reshaping of cities and towns. The results could be disastrous. Urban planner Le Corbosier’s 1930s plans for modernist skyscrapers surrounded by parks inspired urban renewal programs in the United States that built high rise housing projects set amid concrete plazas —many of which are now being blown up and replaced with low rise housing less prone to crime and more in tune with the needs of residents and communities. 
At the center of the revolution was urbanist Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities pointed to lively, bustling streets with human scale architecture as the key features of healthy cities. Creating them called for close observation. 

“The best way to plan for a downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them,” Jacobs wrote in a 1957 essay Downtown is for People. “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

In urging to make streets “more surprising, more compact, more variegated and busier,” she railed against remaking cities with “monumental” buildings and cultural centers. Jacobs favored new buildings scaled in size with others around them and mixed with older structures. She praised “the ingenious adaptations of old quarters to new uses. The townhouse parlor that becomes a craftsman’s showroom, the stable that be-comes a house, the basement that becomes an immigrants club, the garage or brewery that becomes a theater…”

Planner William Whyte took up Jacob’s admonition for observation to guide planning with a camera in hand. Whyte used time lapse and film cameras to document how public spaces—streets, plazas and parks—are used by people day in and day out. Among many design standards in use today, his research is responsible for moveable chairs and tables often found scattered around public parks. They allow people the freedom to sit where they want, moving to favored locations or joining with friends. Just moving a chair can be a “declaration of one’s free will to oneself, and rather satisfying” he noted in his 1988 book “City: Redefining the Center.”

In that book he devotes a chapter to combating the blank walls then increasingly lining the streets of many small- to mid-sized cities. 

“Walk past one of these brutal hulks. Whatever is going on inside, there will be little going on outside,” Whyte wrote. “There will be few people on the sidewalks and few in the blocks beyond. The blank walls, the lack of stores and activity have killed off the life that might have been.”

Planners have gotten the message. Giving people what they want, in spaces that they will use, has become a primary motivation for today’s planners. Following Jacobs, Whyte and others who took part in the revolution, planning “from the ground up” is now the norm. 

Mark Solof is director, public affairs and communications, at the NJTPA.

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