Each passing day it is more common to perceive the streets as obstacles – for traveling, resting, eating, meeting people, exercising, shopping – and ultimately living. After all, who wants to waste precious time in noisy, stinking and unsafe places like many urban streets? Not long ago it was different. The streets were not only used for transit, but also a daily living space for people; harboring lots of activities and having social functions.
It’s important to mention that we are talking about something different from segregated parks built with the purpose to provide a more ‘natural’ environment for walking and relaxing. These parks are not integrated with the rest of the city network. They have explicit boundaries and their own function. They aren’t incorporated in daily activities and in many cases they aren’t the best commuting routes.
One should not be forced to go to specific places to find peace and some fresh air. The whole city should be planned to offer places like these in the streets and areas that the citizens already use when they are going to work, school and other everyday activities.
Nowadays those uses for public space seem completely dissociated. Last week, I was biking to work after having lunch with my wife when I saw a friend of mine. The first thing he asked me was: “I didn’t know you were on vacation!” And he wasn’t the only one who asked me things like that. It is unconceivable to many people that you are really going somewhere (to work, to school, to pay your bills…) and at the same time you are enjoying doing it, exercising and meeting people. Commuting is supposed to be a bad time in your day; otherwise it’s not commuting. And there are many examples where municipalities, for the sake of safety and mobility, discourage any kind of use for the streets except linking A to B the fastest way possible. Ironically, that is exactly one of the reasons that we have to spend more and more time inside a car.
By driving, not only do you reduce your perception of your natural surroundings, but you also compromise conviviality and livability, especially in areas with heavy traffic. A friend once told me that when he worked for a company located in the Greater Curitiba, Brazil, an area (21km distant from his house) he knew at least 26 different paths to get there by bike. And along they way he was always discovering a new corner or square, without fearing getting stuck on traffic jams.
Streets can be great places, if we make them so…