Streets as Public Spaces

By Elle O’Casey

It seems that even the quietest New England streets come alive in the summertime. The warmer weather and longer days prompt us to get outside and enjoy the fleeting summer days and nights. Streets are the arteries of any town. In many towns, they’re the action epicenter. Take Woodstock, for example, with the Village Green ringed by streets. Countless events happen on the Green and everyone gets there by parking, walking, or riding along Route 4.

City and town streets are places where parades and protests happen. They are often where we see our neighbors out walking or our coworkers driving past. In short, they are central to every town’s character and they are the collective places for our comings and goings. Woodstock’s downtown streets and neighborhood roads have been named among the greatest in the country by the American Planning Association. The APA cited Woodstock’s “mix of pocket parks, mixed-use buildings, and community events” as a beautiful collection of public spaces.

Overlooking Woodstock’s East End Park

Overlooking Woodstock’s East End Park

Streets and roads are often a town’s largest areas of public space and represent millions of dollars of infrastructure investment. Given substantial investment and public space streets represent, we should start seeing these roads as our public places for community gatherings and a multitude of activities. Too often, streets have been viewed as vehicle corridors where the car is king. Sidewalks feel too narrow and cars seem to speed by too quickly, making these public spaces feel unsafe and uninviting. Yet, throughout the centuries, streets have been places where people stopped to chat and areas where kids could run or bike.

For the last few decades, a number of organizations and agencies have been advocating for “Complete Streets.” This concept uses transportation policy and design to ensure streets are made safe and accessible for people of all ages, abilities, and transportation modes. Complete Streets looks at designing safer, more accessible sidewalks, transit stops, bike lanes, crosswalks, shared-use paths, and more. Besides increasing safety and access, Complete Streets makes more affordable modes of transportation such as biking, walking, and mass transit more attractive. Complete Streets also promotes exercise and healthy transportation options by creating safer routes for joggers, runners, bikers, and other users.

In 2011, former Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law Act 34, the Complete Streets Bill. The bill was initially spearheaded by AARP and few other organizations that recognized America’s car-centric society can be very difficult for some senior citizens who no longer drive. These seniors needed more accessible and safer options for transportation in their towns. Act 34 states that “the needs of all users of Vermont’s transportation system— including motorists, bicyclists, public transportation users, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities—[must be] considered in all state and municipally managed transportation projects and project phases, including planning, development, construction, and maintenance.”

Vermont’s Complete Streets bill is intended to make sure all users are included in the planning and implementation of road transportation projects in the state. There are a variety of ways to make streets more inclusive and community-focused. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) recommends three principles to design and activate Complete Streets:

  1. Design for Appropriate Speeds
  2. Plan for Community Outcomes — Communities need to envision the kinds of places and interactions they want to support and plan a transportation system consistent with this community vision
  3. Think of Streets as Public Spaces

Along with these three principles, PPS also lists 10 qualities of complete streets. Here are a few of the qualities they list:

  1. Attractions & Destinations: What can people do once they come to a place and what will make them want to return? Consider a diverse array of activities for a broad group of users.
  2. Identity and Image: Keeping streets clean, safe, and uniquely connected to the culture of the town helps build a stronger local identity for the space.
  3. Active Edge Uses: This one is all about optimizing the spaces bordering the streets to promote activities and community. Safe sidewalks and bike paths are a great way to make connections between the street and local stores, homes, and community spaces.
  4. Amenities: Provide convenient amenities to support activities. Amenities can include artful street lighting, bike racks, and clever benches or seating options.
  5. Diverse user groups: It’s critical to offer activities for different audiences in this space.

The State of Vermont offers a Complete Streets guide for communities interested in getting more involved. The guide is full of helpful tips and tricks for improving streets in local towns including recommendations for safe traffic speeds, ways to identify potential users, processes for assessing transportation facilities, and more.

Sustainable Woodstock has been actively working to create more complete streets for area towns. Through a variety of efforts including Safe Routes to School and the East End redevelopment project, Sustainable Woodstock is helping forge better access to our public spaces. If you haven’t stopped by the East End park this summer, I encourage you to walk, ride, or run there to see this beautiful riverside park.

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