We all know the scene: a typical busy suburban intersection, cars going 45 mph+ on 4-8 lanes of road, a few strip retail centers each with a lake of parking in front. Sometimes – if you are lucky – there are some extras: a lonely bus stop, a newer project that attempts to engage the street, maybe some decent sidewalks and landscaping on an intersection or two.
Environments like these treat humans like cogs in a machine: delivering us material goods and services and nothing more. Oh, and when you are done shopping, you have no choice which conveyor belt – err I mean road – to take back home. At least the shopping malls of yesteryear had some internal public spaces that gave us a somewhat unique experience and a chance of forming community.
We can see that something is wrong, we mostly know how we got here – but now how do we make the changes to restore a sense of place and connection in our suburban communities?
A new suburbia?
A good place to start answering this question was at the Brunswick Bowl in Brooklyn Park on a chilly September morning a few weeks ago. There, Hennepin County’s Active Living initiative was sponsoring a daylong seminar by the preeminent placemakers Project for Public Spaces (PPS). Deep in the bowels of a suburban bowling alley and arcade, engineers, planners, health practitioners, and government officials gathered to learn and discuss: how do we transform our communities into a place that is healthier, more humane, more fun, and frankly – generates more tax revenue per dollar of public investment.
So often, we talk about the need to enliven our cities, especially our downtowns. Yes this is true, but the need to bring “the power of place” to the 50%+ of our nation’s population living in the suburbs is even greater. One statistic put our current state of affairs into a stark and very human relief:
- 17 days a year: the average amount of time parents spends driving their kids to activities. More than most people get for vacation
I am not anti car or anti driving. I own one and use it often. Cars are wonderful tools that can get us from point A to point B while carrying a bunch of stuff and people in the process. But what cars give us in flexibility; they take away by eliminating serendipity. What I mean by this is: do you ever randomly run into your neighbor, friend or family while cruising at 50 mph along an arterial road? And if the answer is yes, I hope your acquaintance had health insurance.
Think about it: how great do you feel after unexpectedly seeing someone you know while out and about. It can make your day. When you are driving you have a 0% chance of this happening. Unfortunately, one can become quite isolated if your daily routine looks something like this:
- home to attached garage
- garage to car
- car to parking facility
- parking facility to office
- work in office
- office back to car
- car to shopping center
- shopping center to car
- car to attached garage
- attached garage to home
Not a lot of room for people, conversations, learning, or even being outside…
There are just not many opportunities for random run-ins, for unexpected conversations, for exposure to unsolicited ideas in modern suburbia (or even urban areas for that matter). If you are relying solely on scheduled meetings or “play dates”, you won’t be able to build the sort of strong social support network of strong and weak ties that we social animals need to thrive.
Ok, but what do we do?
Back to the Brunswick Bowl. What was so encouraging about this gathering was that it was aspirational and realistic. We made this situation, and if we don’t like it, we can make it better. After a morning spent learning about what features and techniques one can use to create a place where people actually want to be, we ventured out along the 6-lane Brooklyn Boulevard for some analysis.
What we saw and experienced was not pretty. But here is the thing – we can change it. We – the public – own the roads, the sidewalks, the street lamps, the parks, the schools, etc. We make the rules. Is changing the rules, the infrastructure patterns, and land uses hard? And does it take a long time? Yes. But we as citizens still call the shots.
So how do we get there: have a long term vision paired with immediate action. PPS gave each participant a survey to diagnose what was wrong, but also what was right about the area. Then we strategized on long term changes that should be made as well as things we could do immediately. My group came up with things like: movable tables and chairs, adding on-street parking, bringing a farmers market and/or food truck to a nearby underused plaza, moving a bus stop to a friendlier corner of the intersection, and adding bike racks. There is no reason why you couldn’t organize a similar activity in your community – and then act on it.
In short: small successes build group confidence; confidence leads to momentum, momentum leads to big long term changes. We can do this.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world (or a boring, ugly, car-dominated intersection). Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead