Are Streets, Like Fences, A Relic of Another Era?

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[Written by Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost wrote in the poem “Mending Wall.”

It is a line that captures the 1914 poem’s themes of boundaries, ownership, and privacy perfectly. But today, 100 years later, fences are becoming more of a quaint notion in an increasingly urbanized world.

According to the United Nations, which has been tracking world urbanization patterns for years, 81 percent of Americans currently live in urban areas. This is a worldwide migration trend as well, with more than half of the world’s population now residing in cities.

If America’s rural and suburban areas are all about the private realm, then our cities are about the public realm; that is, the commons. More people are choosing to live in cities, electing a lifestyle of smaller living spaces, nonexistent yards, and more people in closer proximity.

The fenced-in private yard is giving way to neighborhood parks and sidewalk cafés. The public realm is reasserting itself as a vital place in which residents of cities can socialize, recreate, and politically demonstrate.

“Yet public space, often slow in the making, is easily compromised,” says Thomas Mellins, curator of Open to the Public: Civic Space Now at New York City’s Center for Architecture. “Its creation and maintenance require both patience and vigilance.” In land-poor places such as Manhattan and Arlington, Virginia, the market pressure for conversion of parks into “higher and better” uses is not insignificant. We should approach such ideas with skepticism.

Most people do not realize, however, that the majority of public space in the U.S. consists of streets. According to Planetizen, streets comprise roughly one-third of the land area of an average city. As automobile ownership declines and alternative transportation modes prevail, it makes sense to convert excess street bandwidth into walkable, usable public spaces.

Some cities are doing just this, in empowering displays of civic-mindedness. Charlottesville, Virginia pedestrianized its historic business district into a Downtown Mall before it was fashionable. More recently, New York City partially pedestrianized Times Square… permanently.

Just as nature threatened to take back the space occupied by Frost’s “Mending Wall,” cities too should take back that other, man-made obstacle to community. We’ve done it in small measure with protected bike lanes. Let the reclamation continue.

Photo by Maciek Lulko.

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