A Carte Blanche for Public Space

There is perhaps no meteorological event more aesthetically pleasing than a heavy snowfall. The sense that crystalized vapor carries in it the transformative power to invigorate the mundane and ornament the begrimed is among the most wonderful attributes of winter. Yet the transformative powers of snow are not limited to mere aesthetics, for it also carries in it the capacity to transform a public space, and consequently the very essence of a neighborhood.

A street is not often understood as a public space in our current conception of the word. For our lifetimes and the lifetimes of everyone we have ever personally known, streets have been synonymous with motion—synonymous with roads. And the conflation between street and road is indeed an unfortunate one, whereby our confusion is carried through to its design, and set in place by concrete. More precisely, a road is a way from one place to another whereas a street is a place in and of itself.

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Residents wasted no time in reclaiming a snowy Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, NY, during the Blizzard of 2016

A valuable exercise in appreciating the distinction is to think about what streets were used for before the advent of the automobile. Given that the motor car first rolled onto city streets around the turn of the 20th century, whereas the first street grids date back to over 5,000 years ago, the vast majority of historical street uses have been absent of motorized traffic. When I pose this question, a common instinctual answer is that they were used for horse and buggy, or something to that effect. This response betrays our contemporary understanding of a street’s purpose as that of a thoroughfare. Yet for the overwhelming majority of civilized history, the rights-of-way between property lines were places of commerce, places of socializing, and yes, also places of transit. The fact is that a street is—or at least ought to be—all of these things.

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So what does this have to do with crystalized precipitation? When a layer of snow blankets our public rights-of-way, they cloak our sidewalks and pavement markings: our delineation of public space. They create a carte blanche, if you will, for our public right-of-way. Hidden is the asymmetrically allocated cross-sectional width dedicated to motorized traffic in a neighborhood where fewer than half of residents own vehicles. The snow reveals before us the sheer breadth of real estate available to the public, if only we could prioritize it in the image of a safe and healthful city.

What I was most impressed by as I strolled about my Brooklyn neighborhood was how seamlessly people took to reclaiming their public space in the absence of the ever-present danger inherent to motor vehicle traffic. Despite the appreciable snow and wind, scores of people filled the streets throwing snowballs and pulling children on sleds, realizing the fullest potential of what a street can be used for. Of course this was enabled by a travel ban, which effectively endowed residents with the reigns to their own neighborhood, even if only temporarily. And in the event that a motorist did come to pass, they did so slowly, cautiously, and with the understanding that the streets were no longer their exclusive domain.

Even when the travel ban is inevitably lifted, the snow will provide us a canvas to trace the paths of motor vehicles, revealing to us how much space is unnecessarily allocated to drivers in the form of sneckdowns, a portmanteau of “snow” and “neckdown.” The latter of the two words refers to a traffic calming strategy whereby the curb is extended farther into the traveled way in order to reduce the horizontal alignment to slow drivers, facilitate safe right-angle turns, and reduce the crossing distance and exposure to motor traffic for people walking along the sidewalk.

All this is to say that in addition to the snow revealing the beauty in our cities, it also reveals the beauty in potential for our public space. It reminds us that from a design perspective, we really do have carte blanche in determining to whom we allocate this precious real estate. As with most things, the barriers to transformation are political, even if they can be briefly lifted by a fortuitous force of nature.

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