Streets and the Public Realm

Emerging designs

Authored by: Elizabeth Macdonald

Companion to Urban Design

Print publication date:  January  2011
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415553643
eBook ISBN: 9780203844434
Adobe ISBN: 9781136920097


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It is a pretty good guess that when people think of their city’s public realm, they mostly think of parks and public buildings. And yet, in almost any North American city, the amount of land occupied by public parks, public buildings, and public squares does not equal the amount of land occupied by public rights-of-way. Streets typically represent 25 to 35 percent of all developed land in American cities. Overwhelmingly, that space is owned and controlled by the city, and more to the point, the public. The public can and does determine how the immense amount of space in public rights-of-way shall be used, and how it is designed. Of course, “the public” is not a homogenous entity. Who can and does participate in the public decision-making regarding street design has during the last century come to be very limited. All too often the missions, goals, plans, professional norms and street design standards promulgated by bureaucratic institutions, such as state transportation agencies and city planning or public works departments, trump the wishes of local community members, especially those in poorer neighborhoods who do not have the power to fight them. Nonetheless, the public has the ultimate say over publicly owned lands, and through political processes can influence what decisions are made regarding street design.

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