Home Street Home: Changing how we think and talk about our streets

By Thomas Morefield, Director of Community Planning

Education is an important part of BikeWalkKC’s work and that includes education about designing and building streets as places for people. When I lead training workshops, I like to begin with a simple exercise.  I ask people to think about their favorite street and why that street is their favorite. Whether I am speaking to students or neighborhood groups or transportation professionals, the responses are consistent: the streets that people like best are places where they have a special memory or experience. It could be a street where they watched their children grow up, or a street where they can buy ice cream and sit on a bench while they enjoy it. It could be a street with a rise that offers a view of the sunset on the drive home, or a street they sled on when it snows. People pick streets for the shade of the trees, or the history that happened there, or the neighbors and restaurants they like to visit.

This might seem like a facile kind of observation, but I think it is really important when we shift our focus from what makes our streets special to how we can make them better.

Conversations about street design are conversations about community priorities: who gets to use this public space? How much of the street should be allocated to different types of uses? What tradeoffs are acceptable as we balance all the uses and users who must coexist in a constrained public right-of-way? And ultimately, what sort of purpose do we want our streets to serve?

Because community conversations about streets are at their root conversations about community priorities, they often become emotional, political, and distorted by fears and personal convictions. It’s easy to fall into a mindset of winners and losers, pitting one activity or mode of transportation against another. It’s also easy for people to get defensive about the status quo.  If we make space on our streets for new uses and users, people who use the existing street worry that comes at their expense.

While the geometric constraints of our streets lead us to a zero-sum mindset, we can choose to reject this antagonism.  One of the ways to reset the conversation is to take a step back and think about what we really want our streets to do. If the streets we say we love best are about ice cream and sunsets and autumn leaves, that should influence the decisions we make about how to design and invest in our public spaces.

Another way to reframe the conversation about our streets is to recognize and be explicit about all the things our streets are doing for us. 

There is a tendency to think about streets as transportation conduits whose sole purpose is to convey people from a to b. With this paradigm, design decisions are made to streamline and simplify movement, and to remove barriers that would inhibit this movement. In this mindset, a café table outside a coffee shop, a pedestrian pressing a button to get a walk signal, and a person moving at pedal speed on a bike are all problematic because they disrupt the flow of automobile traffic, and driving is how most of us use most of our streets.

While this fixation on efficient traffic flow often dominates community conversations about street design, it usually ranks very low as a priority when people have the opportunity to evaluate it in relation to other community goals. The priorities people have for their streets are generally the same as their priorities for their entire community – a desire for places that support living well with all that entails. People want streets that make us safer, healthier, and more productive.  People want streets with people and activities that make their lives more interesting.  People want streets that make it easier to get to work, school, services, and all the opportunities that improve quality of life.  And people want choices for how to move around.

We are lucky to have a wealth of data about the benefit of complete streets – streets that work for everyone no matter who they are or how they travel. We know that people care about community benefits including safety, health, environment, economy, equity, accessibility, and livability. If these are the outcomes that matter most to us, we have the knowledge we need to design our streets to achieve these outcomes. 

We are also lucky because it easier than ever for the average resident to be proactive in reshaping the streets and public spaces in their communities.  From grassroots advocacy, to pop up demonstration events, to do-it-yourself tree planting and furniture building, there are more tools than ever empowering people to improve their streets and communities.

Recognizing the need to change how we think about and talk about our streets and public spaces, BikeWalkKC is introducing Home Street Home – an interactive educational exhibit that explores our streets as places where we travel, shop, play, and engage with our communities.  The Home Street Home exhibit is designed to be accessible and interesting to a wide audience including child-friendly activities.  It includes five “stations” each with a separate theme and activity.  The exhibit is scalable and configurable so that it can easily be adapted to different locations and purposes.

The Home Street Home exhibit is available for community projects and events.  You can go here to reserve the exhibit and learn more: https://bikewalkkc.org/planning/homestreethome/.

Posted in Bicycling, BikeWalkKC News, Local, Metro-wide, News, Planning, Walking.