Insights from the National Street Service

Tiffany Obser
May 21 · 9 min read

In the two short years since we launched the National Street Service, scooters have gone from relative obscurity to ubiquity, bikeshare and electric bikes have burgeoned into new markets, and new mobility partnerships are being announced at an ever increasing pace. The constant in all of these developments is the street. As new forms of mobility proliferate, and the demands on infrastructure keep changing, our streets need to adapt to an evolving set of circumstances.

The National Street Service was born from the recognition that streets are the infrastructure plane that everything touches — street form shapes not only our mobility options, but also our societies, our shared spaces, and our collective conscience. Our goal is to help build a rich and nuanced understanding of our streets, and begin to uncover their latent potential.

We believe that more people can and should be involved in shaping the public space of the street. Greater critical thinking can be mobilized and new mechanisms for engagement must be pursued to ensure that broader sets of voices are heard and that the infrastructure which dictates the nature of our communities and our culture enters the discourse.

Field Guide to the National Street Service — read now on issuu

Our Field Guide documents the process and the outcomes of the National Street Service work across five cities and over 100 participants. The Guide elaborates on how we cultivated a street-based perspective in participants, and what we learned from the people who were learning how to influence their own environment.

The eight-week program was designed to help program participants define ‘better streets’ informed by community priorities, demonstrate what is possible, break down barriers to civic participation, and find common ground. The process involved observing the built environment, making a gesture in the physical space of their street, and coming together as a group.

We found that something powerful happened as people worked their way through the program — the participants found conviction to harness their skills and establish their agency. With the right framing, we saw how participants’ stated desires shifted from answers centered in self-interest and the status quo (more benches, more trees), to answers much more creative, rich and universal, answers which considered the shared experience of the street. Articulating these potentials can be a powerful tool for individuals looking to impact the urban sphere, policy change, or community building.

Additionally, we found something powerful for ourselves. We were learning too! We were able to gain rich insights into perspectives about the street and lessons as we consider how we might help build the streets of tomorrow. Below we summarize some of our key insights — shared fully within the Field Guide — which are drawn from the deep participatory engagement with people on the street, conducted in the course of rolling out the National Street Service. The insights provide perspectives on how it feels as a human on the street, and the challenges and tensions that must be navigated to build better streets. We hope that they shed light on what we encountered and spark new ideas and models for engagement.

Insight 1: Agency in the street takes many different forms. Individuals often need a nudge to trigger participation.

We found that there is a widespread desire to participate in the street, which is largely untapped. More people want to participate in shaping the street than the current system encompasses. By being mindful of the different ways that people show up and partake in the street and accommodating these different inclinations, we can provide a path for action that feels natural to more participants.

Insight 2: Dictating what to do does not inspire action; leading with questions honors the local context.

Too often, imposing programs and top-down solutions are forced onto communities without the tools to tailor them to the local context. Leading with questions and providing a flexible framework for action respects the unique conditions of each city and builds confidence in the relevance of individual ideas and actions. A scaffolding for participation equips people to take control of their own environment and gives them space to evolve their ideas, interact within their neighborhood, and make changes in the street that are authentic to their reality.

Insight 3: Feeling comfortable to be present or take action on the street depends on a sense of belonging and permission.

It is important to acknowledge the unspoken rules that govern who participates in the shape of the street. Many people feel like they don’t have permission to be in the street unless they have an articulated purpose. For example, many streets are codified by a “pay to play” system that signals you don’t belong on the street unless you’re patronizing a business and spending money there. People who don’t feel they physically or socially belong in the street may lack the permission to use and shape the street, or challenge existing norms.

Insight 4: Vehicle design creates an emotional and physical barrier to connection.

We have a diminishing ability to connect on a human level to people who aren’t our family, friends, or co-workers in public space, a connection we crave as humans. While there are many structures that contribute to this phenomenon, from land use to technology, the barriers presented by private vehicles exemplify this. In their cars, people are detached from experiencing the street and miss out on the richness that comes from a visceral understanding of place and connecting with the people who inhabit it.

We currently design cars to be pristine, comfortable places, but in the process we seal ourselves off from the richness of the street and the chance to connect with people and places along our way. We’ve been asking ourselves, how might we change the street, to invite the participation and connection of people in vehicles? And conversely — how might we change vehicles to deliver a greater connection to the experience of streets, people, and places?

Insight 5: The current rules of the street place the burden of attention on those most vulnerable.

As humans we face natural limits — limits like the speed we can move through space, and the level of vigilance and attention we can bring to our surroundings. For vulnerable users of the street, one lapse in attention can have tragic consequences. Streets should not demand impossible, superhuman levels of attention to guarantee safety.

Insight 6: Physical space influences culture; culture influences physical space.

The design of physical space shapes culture by dictating what people can experience and their beliefs about what is possible on the street. By experiencing a different street — even through a rough prototype or experiment — beliefs about what the street is for can be expanded. The culture of the street — the soul, emotions, mindsets and culture of the community that occupies it — shapes the kind of actions and changes that are acceptable to a given street. If you can influence the culture of the street in the right places it will impact the form of the street.

Targeting either factor — mindsets or space — can change the whole experience of the street, and thus the city. Acting on both simultaneously offers the most powerful results; whether this is through acting alone, or leveraging strategic partnerships.

Insight 7: Streets are the front line for local social issues, which adds inherent complexity to understanding mindsets towards the street.

The realm of streets is inherently political because streets are public space. Attempts to influence the design of the street will inevitably surface serious local political concerns because the streets are a place where these issues manifest and intersect. Conflicts over street space, parking, land and use will ultimately surface environmental issues, disputes about transportation investment, governance structures, law enforcement, corporate interests, and conflicts between advocacy organizations and local businesses.

Insight 8: Street space is hotly contested, but shared values are a tool to connect disparate interest groups.

As the previous insight acknowledges, the conversation and control of the street is splintered into niche interest groups and city-specific organizations. Finding a commonality and identifying an entry point is critical to bridging divides. To advance conversation, people need to get together and establish a common ground. Finding that local touchpoint is integral to the success of any endeavor.

In Boise, the concept of the street offering any value beyond mobility was a radical concept, the value of the street as a place was not something most volunteers had considered. Volunteers were tentative about going into, playing, or engaging the street. A street experiment created by Kenny, uncovered a resonant message that cut across these divides to communicate the value of streets as a place. He created a sign which appropriated the aesthetic of the National Parks Service, familiar and beloved across political and economic ideologies in Idaho. By taking the concept of the ‘public park system’ to ‘public streets’ he convinced people that streets are public space that everyone is entitled to. The sign was an instant hit as an emblem of Boise streets, it was loaned across the city to spread the message and made local headlines when it disappeared weeks later.

Insight 9: Knowing how to relate to the street helps people relate to the larger city system.

The National Street Service demonstrated that you can give people a connection to the larger system by making them experts in their local context. By creating channels for people to take the stage in their own community, they gain the confidence to become stakeholders at greater scales.

For Briana, a volunteer in the Youth Team, a cohort of teens from an underinvested community in North Philadelphia, the program helped foster a rich understanding of her local street. This confidence empowered her to stand in front of an audience in center city, and speak with authority in front of a room full of adults, knowing that she had something valuable to share with them. Her local expertise gave her a way connect her neighborhood to the broader city systems and grasp the larger structures, channels, and political agencies that impact her streets.

Moving Forward

In 2019 and onwards, the National Street Service will continue to build its reach by connecting with more cities, more streets, and most importantly, more people in the capable hands of Ford Mobility’s City:One division. We look forward to more insights gleaned in the future and further mindset change around the soul of our cities — our streets.

We welcome your feedback and provocations — our work has always been centered in curiosity. What will the future of community-centered streets be like, and how can we best enable it to happen? We come to communities with more questions than answers, and by sharing the process of thinking and building, with communities and with the world, our intention is to broaden ideas about what streets are for and how we might impact the mindsets, policies, and design that govern public space.

Article Credits:
Writer: Tiffany Obser
Liz Broekhuyse

Driving human progress through empathy, creativity, and design. A division of Ford Motor Co. DETROIT // PALO ALTO // LONDON // SHANGHAI

Tiffany Obser

Written by

Design and Research at Greenfield Labs


Driving human progress through empathy, creativity, and design. A division of Ford Motor Co. DETROIT // PALO ALTO // LONDON // SHANGHAI

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