In Glasgow, Scotland a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a lovely feature of many European cities: broad central city streets converted to pedestrian only. In Glasgow it’s on Sauchiehall Street and makes a grand turn onto Buchanan, covering over 20 city blocks. Mostly lined with stores and offices, the landscape created can be "read" as an extended shopping mall, but outdoors, with storefronts opening onto a real street, now converted into a pedestrian and bicycling oasis. The zone is crowded with walkers and shoppers at any given time. (Similar zones that I’ve visited are the Strøget in Copenhagen, Denmark and Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu in Istanbul, Turkey.)
It’s an immediate challenge as a resident of the U.S. to enter one of these spaces, where thousands of people are comfortably wandering around, talking, sitting at outdoor cafes or bars, and generally making full use of a public space. Our culture has done its best to diminish and/or eliminate such public spaces. In San Francisco, Market Street has been suggested as our grand public boulevard several times in the past two generations, but somehow the public fails to make use of the space. One could argue that it’s because we’ve never given up on having cars running down the middle of the street, or even that there’s just too much public transit occupying too much space. In Istanbul there’s a charming historic tram running down the middle of the otherwise pedestrian-only Istiklal. Various streets in Zurich, Switzerland also have trams running through pedestrian-only areas, as do many other cities, so the presence of transit alone is not a sufficient explanation of why we have such trouble.
In Chicago some years ago they closed State Street to cars and installed a pedestrian-only zone, but after less than a year, concluded that the absence of automobile traffic had killed the district as a place to go! Along Market Street there used to be a large number of black granite square blocks serving as benches, but they were all taken out in a punitive effort to deprive homeless folks of a place to rest (granted, some of these benches were more or less colonized by different individuals for hours on end). The result is a less convivial and pleasant cityscape.
It seems that Americans are unaccustomed to making good use of public space. Or perhaps there’s a problem with the design of public spaces here, in contrast to places like Glasgow or Copenhagen or Istanbul, so they’re just not inviting or comfortable. We can say for sure that the disregard and outright contempt shown to homeless people leads to higher levels of stress and confrontation in the public spaces we DO occupy. No wonder. Imagine how difficult it would be to be basically destitute, all your possessions on your back or in a shopping cart, and have to coexist among relatively affluent folks, all properly housed, who are hanging out enjoying themselves. A proper program to animate public space can only be taken seriously if there is an extensive program of providing decent housing to everyone. These are simply inseparable.
I also think it’s a chicken-and-egg drama. You can’t have a population that is accustomed to enjoying time in public thoroughfares if there’s no place to congregate away from traffic and the incessant pressure to make a purchase to justify your presence. But the various efforts to create such spaces seem always to fail to attract sufficient numbers of people, leaving them hollow simulations of genuine public spaces. There has to be a population that demands public space and then makes use of it once it exists. And public spaces have to beckon into existence the people who will use them. San Francisco’s waterfront is starting to feel like it’s hosting such a dynamic (though it’s largely tourists who are enjoying it to the fullest).
There are some good signs of this newly demanding public these days. In Dolores Park over the past few years the broad stretch of rich grass sloping up from Dolores Street, south of the tennis courts, north of 19th Street, east of the recreational field, has suddenly and unexpectedly become "Hipster Hill," full of young fixed-gear riders, loiterers, smokers and drinkers, dancers, and all manner of young folks, all insistently staking out a spot on this comfy slope. Funny, because only 3-4 years ago, and for as long as I can remember before that, hardly anyone sat in this area. Now it’s jammed full whenever the weather allows for it.
Is an urge for conviviality and public life growing in San Francisco? Certainly. Can we learn from the ubiquitous public spaces of Europe? I hope so!