What if every street looked like the High Line?
The Great Urban Do-Over Is Coming. Let’s Not Eff It Up.
Standing under the glow of a pizza joint with a B sanitation grade, a friend and I waited. At this particular Manhattan corner on a snowy Sunday night in early March, we were waiting along with a half dozen others as one car driven by one man meandered up 10th avenue. He passed, we jaywalked, my friend pushing a Citibike en route to the protected lane on 9th and a fast, cold ride home to Chelsea.
“We should get rid of all the cars in the city. I stare at climate data all day and we gotta do something,” he blurted, quickly walking it back as too boldly progressive. To our left, that one car’s red taillights traced a lazy path away through the snow.
But the idea, as crazy as it IS on its face, is a lot less crazy than it would have been five years ago, or ten. In fact, now is exactly the moment to talk about the future of our streets, because a big shift is barreling down on us like a Chinese straddling bus.
“What if every avenue in the city was like the High Line? Imagine how tourism, business and quality of life would boom,” I thought out loud.
I. Big shifts
History tells us that the biggest shifts in history often happen without much awareness by the people experiencing them. And they’re always the result of a wide mesh of factors that, seemingly unrelated by themselves, come together to create a revolution.
With the Industrial Age, it was steam power and electrification, rail and communications. In postwar 1950s America, it was transportation and a national industrial complex eager to shift from tools of war to new machines of prosperity.
Our nation woke up each morning to papers full of ads for Chevys and Fords, while federally funded construction projects erected highways that divided people and entrenched our nation’s communities. GM dismantled streetcar systems and our disinvestment in cities began.
In every era, these shifts have the power to completely transform our way of life and our approach to designing places — with effects that linger for decades to come.
Today, *right now*, while we poke at our phones for another hit of mild amusement, we are in the middle of another revolution. We just don’t realize it yet.
Here’s what’s happening
- Worldwide, people are moving to cities
- Autonomous transportation is set to upend these cities soon — remember, they don’t have to be perfect drivers, they just have to be better than you
- People are fighting to take back their streets from cars
- Cities are exploding with data that we can use to make better decisions
- Labor is increasingly service oriented and focused in creative capitals
- Our climate just experienced the hottest summer on record
Here’s what it means
We can remake our places into the best version of themselves, leading to stimulated economies, reduced inequality, improved health, and gains against climate change. It’s the “Great Urban Do-Over.”
We also have a tremendous opportunity to feck it all up.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the High Line.
II. What makes the High Line so special?
For one glorious fall, I “commuted” via the High Line. I’d fill up a tall coffee and stroll the first two sections of the elevated park from Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen. The blast of air off the Hudson, the plants and trees and flowers at once wild and meticulously cared for — all of it poured in making me feel present and alive as I dodged early-morning tourists.
“Sense of place”
The High Line has an incredible sense of “place,” the know-it-when-you-feel-it quality that floods your brain with happy chemicals and snaps you into awareness. The benefits to such a stirring place go far beyond its elevated greenery, forging a path of high property values and booming businesses through an area that not long ago was mostly known as where you sat in traffic while waiting to get on the Lincoln Tunnel.
So what does an expensive urban park have to do with the future of our streets?
If we can communicate the idea that all of our streets could have the same “feel” as the High Line — even if the form they take is very different — we can build excitement and demand for the next generation of public space. Remember, more than 5 million people visit the park each year. Around the world, people know this place.
If we start now, we just might be able to get people hooked on that High Line feelin’ before it’s too late. The benefits, to our health, our climate, and our economy are too good for us not to try.
50 Reasons Why Everyone Should Want More Walkable Streets
As more cities try to improve walkability-from car-free "superblocks" in Barcelona to heat-protected walkways in Dubai…
III. Our streets are like Blackberries — and the iPhone is about to come out
Remember the Blackberry and its beloved fixed button keyboard that took up half the device? When Steve Jobs took the stage to introduce the iPhone, he showed that keyboard and asked us to imagine a device where all those buttons could instead be a dynamic space, one that changed from a keyboard to a full screen video, or detailed map of your city.
Our city streets are the “fixed keyboards” of infrastructure
Bespoke with extra-wide lanes, parking lining both sides, high car throughput, an occasional bike lane, and zero flexibility. They were engineered for texting, eating, distracted humans and, critically, for moving cars and people into, through, and out of places as quickly as possible.
But autonomous vehicles don’t need wide lanes, they don’t need to park in urban areas, they don’t require much signage or signals, they won’t hit bikers or pedestrians, they don’t get impatient, and they don’t go searching for Pokemons.
It’s time to throw out the keyboard and start thinking of our streets as a blank iPhone screen. Unencumbered by the fossil fuel-driven personal automobile, we should set a new normal.
How should people feel when they walk through the space? What do local businesses need from the street? How should the space change throughout the day, or day of the week? Should AVs access the street? At all times? Some of the time? What about public transit? How should trees, sidewalks, bike paths, park-lets, seating, wifi, art, and gardens fit in? What changes can we make to rural/less-urban communities so they share in these benefits?
We have a once-in-a-generation chance to boldly rethink our streetscapes and our communities. I wish Steve Jobs were still here to help us communicate this bold transformation. He famously eschewed user research, preferring to build something revolutionary and then introduce it to the world. He followed Henry Ford’s “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” model of product development.
We need a “one more thing…” big reveal of this new vision. Because we can’t improve our complex streets that were built for human piloted cars incrementally, and we can’t communicate a new vision by talking about small tweaks to the status quo. We need a blank slate, we need a clear vision, and we need people to demand a do-over. For me, that starts with the High Line.
IV. When the levee breaks
Put simply, we have two choices that will determine whether the world we leave for our children is livable and sustainable:
- Let the autonomous vehicle levee break and spill and transform our cities to its will.
- Or start planning now for the flood, using this transformative moment to fix our cities’ problems and design the places we want to live in for the next generation.
We need a bold vision for this “do-over.” One that helps people envision how they will feel in this new public space, and sparks the imaginations of all of us — urban planners, policymakers, designers, communicators, writers, thinkers, and everyday folks alike.
We can let this big shift roll over us, or we can start communicating the big idea that we get to remake all of our streets into beautiful creative spaces that breathe new life into our cities. The choice is in our hands, which are now conveniently not stuck on a steering wheel. I’m excited. Let’s do this.
This piece was inspired by the field-altering work by Robin Chase, “Self-Driving Cars Will Improve Our Cities. If They Don’t Ruin Them.” Absolute must-read. And by Brent Toderian and his “Cities for People, Not Cars” campaign.
I’m not a planner, a policymaker, an AV expert, or really anyone you should listen to on this. I am just a communications guy who loves cities. Give this piece a recommend and send it around to any fellow city nerds if you find it useful!