If you’re a fan of public space, you find it wherever you can. One warm morning in June, architect Corky Poster sits on a slim sidewalk bench in a small patch of shade on the corner of Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue.
From the face of the opposite building (Miller’s Outpost) to where he is sitting, he says, is public space. “The public, or policy, has the right to distribute the use of that public right of way in any way it chooses,” Poster says.
With the right kind of policy and allocation of resources, public spaces can be great hubs of social interaction, places where people can get to know each other, learn from one another, and enjoy one another, Poster says. He says learning from both permanent public spaces in other cities and impromptu ones right here could make Tucson a better place.
The False Supremacy of the Car
A car pulls up to the stop sign on Sixth Ave, heading into downtown. Behind it, a truck follows. Within 15 minutes there’s a fairly steady stream of traffic here.
“Historically, we’ve given 85 percent of [public space] to cars,” Poster says. “The rest of the other activities are squeezed up to the edges. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
He shares a brief history to explain how cars got to be the dominant users of the street. In 1905, every city of more than 5,000 people had an electric street car, Poster says. In cities like Detroit, Chicago, and even Tucson, automobile industry realized the best way to grow rapidly was to eliminate competition. “Those cities tore up street car rails and put them in the landfill,” Poster says. “So it’s not an accident.”
Even in Tucson, “the street car rail was destroyed for a new burgeoning industry that needed lots of room and lots of fuel and lots of asphalt,” Poster says.
But Poster believes streets, or some of them at least, can be used differently. “It’s not a natural right that this has to be asphalt.”
Spaghetti Streets, Open Plazas, and Shade
All cities have what Poster calls “spaghetti paths” — sidewalks or roads — that comprise the bulk of public space as well as larger, open public spaces such as plazas.
In Spain, for example, medieval cities with their “twisty streets” were designed around natural topography, he says. And in Latin America, Spanish colonial cities were designed according to the Law of the Indies, a handbook of sorts on how to design cities in the new world. “When you want a public space you just leave out a city block. Plazas were simply blocks that were left out.”
In cities built before cars, the scale is designed to be more human, Poster says. Because much of Tucson was designed for the automobile, it’s harder to retrofit.
But it’s not impossible.
Poster says he loves being downtown, and walking, because he gets business done, catches up with people. “Social life is natural,” he says.
He believes a city with vibrant public spaces and walkability is a better city than one without them, in part, because those elements draw people. “Then you have social interaction instead of people sitting in their houses watching TV getting in their care and driving to another place.”
People crave social spaces, Poster says. “And they’re really happy when they get it.”
Making Visible What’s Possible
Poster finds inspiration in a quote from Kylie Walzak, a program manager at Living Streets Alliance, an organization that works to transform streets into vibrant places for walking, bicycling, socializing, and play, where he serves on the board. “Our job is to make the possible visible.”
For the past five years, Poster and his wife have helped organize an October event called “Noche en Blanco,” modeled after a similar event founded 30 years ago in Paris. Tucson’s version is a flash mob dinner in which participants wear white, set up tables and chairs, bring food, and eat dinner together at a public location, which remains secret until the day of the event.
“That’s a demonstration that takes no effort and no money to get 2,200 people out, taking over a street and using it for a different purpose,” Poster says.
What he loves best about Noche en Blanco, is “You’re there for half and hour and then you realize that nothing is going to happen. There’s not going to be a thing. No one’s going to make a speech, no one’s going to ask you for money,” Poster says.
It’s just about being outside in public space, he says. “People are so happy.”
A similar reclaiming of the streets happens at the biannual Cyclovia Tucson, an event organized by the Living Streets Alliance, where Poster serves as a member of the board of directors.
Cyclovia Tucson closes designated roads to cars in Tucson for a day so that people can walk, bike, jog, skate, and gather. The event is modeled after the city of Bogotá, Colombia, which closes down over 70 miles of roadways to cars every Sunday and on holidays.
“That doesn’t have to be a special event,” Poster says of Cyclovia Tucson. “In most cities it’s not. In most cities it’s everyday life.”
On the Shady Side
In a desert city like Tucson one of the most important elements of usable public space is shade.
Poster, who has worked in downtown Tucson everyday for the past 43 years, says he starts planning his walking routes come springtime. “May through October, when I go somewhere I do a shade map in my head. How can I get there walking with maximum amount of shade?”
Again, Poster uses examples from Spanish cities, where most of the streets in the summer are covered with awnings, he says. He mentions also a bridge in Sevilla that resembles the Cushing Street Bridge in Tucson, but with shade structures.
“[Tucson] should have a shade plan at least for downtown if not for the whole city. But we don’t do that. Instead you have to walk tightly against the edge of a building.”
Widening Is Not the Answer
Poster has learned from urban design and planning examples that banning cars altogether is not the answer. But it is possible to redistribute space, he says. He cites the city of Prague as an example. Cars aren’t prohibited from the city center, but in some places there are so many pedestrians, “cars have to part the sea of people,” he says.
He believes widening streets never solves traffic problems. “If you make driving as comfortable and easy as possible people are more likely to keep doing it.”
He shares a story told to him by an urban designer named Jan Gehl about a skunk in a basement. The owner of the house thought he’d lure the skunk out of the basement by placing a trail of breadcrumbs from the cellar door to the nearby woods. In the morning, however, he woke instead to a second skunk in the basement.
Poster says the biggest obstacles to redesigning our streets are economics and convenience.
“People complain, ‘Why should I have to pay to park?’ Well, because you’re expropriating public land for your own private use, that’s why you have to pay to park,” Poster says.
Besides, Poster says, there are so many other things a parking space can be used for.
He points to the parking spaces in front of EXO, and takes a minute to re-imagine the intersection. “First I would eliminate those four parking spaces and create and temporary revocable easement so that folks in EXO and Tap & Bottle could have an outdoor venue that would expand their capacity. You could make up those spaces across the street. The value to these two businesses, and to the street, would be amazing. You could plant another tree right here, and you could make the patio ‘float’ so you don’t interfere with drainage.”
That kind of reallocation of asphalt, Poster says, changes the way people interact in a city.
It’s about re-envisioning and creating choices. “You talk about creating pedestrian spaces, and people think you’re trying to take their car away from them,” Poster says, “No. We’re just trying to create choices.”
- Shoup, Donald. 2011. The High Cost of Free Parking. APA Planners Press.
- Speck, Jeff. 2013. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. North Point Press.
- Living Streets Alliance: Tucson-based non-profit organization working to promote healthy communities by empowering people to transform our streets into vibrant places for walking, bicycling, socializing, and play.
- National Alliance for Biking and Walking, national organization that creates, strengthens, and unites state and local bicycling and walking advocacy organizations.