Street Games or Stoplights?

Event: Fixing the Great Mistake
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.13.11
Speaker: Mark Gorton — Founder, OpenPlans & Co-Founder, The New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign
Moderator: Ethan Kent — Project for Public Spaces & Co-Founder, The New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign
Introduction: Celeste Layne — Co-Chair, APA NY Metro Chapter Transportation Committee
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; APA NY Metro Chapter Transportation Committee

Bicycling is viable for a wide range of the population .

Courtesy The New York Streets Renaissance

Mark Gorton’s hopeful vision for NYC is one in which stickball has returned to our streets. He views street games as a unique indicator of livability, and, as the founder of OpenPlans and the co-founder of The New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, he is a vehement advocate for improving civic life by demoting the role of the automobile in the urban planning process. During his lecture, he contended that we have a choice, to design a city that is friendly to cars or to people.

Central to Gorton’s argument is the assertion that a people-friendly city must promote the safety and welfare of its children. Kids are the victims in an automobile-centric street infrastructure because, in addition being unable to operate a car, they are often endangered by traffic. Gorton presented research suggesting that kids who can play games in the street will socialize with their peers, interact on a visceral level with their neighborhood, and otherwise remove the voyeuristic burden from their parents or caretakers. Moreover, as the U.S. stares down a childhood obesity crisis, it is worthwhile to contemplate the secondary health benefits of pedestrianizing little-trafficked streets.

Gorton also highlighted studies that show a direct correlation between reductions in automobile traffic and increases in economic activity. Thus, creating more pedestrian-only zones in NYC is likely to aid business, not hinder it, as some planners feared in the past. Automobiles are not banished entirely from these neighborhoods, so slow-moving emergency, delivery, and sanitation vehicles can continue to quietly support activity without interrupting foot-traffic.

Gorton believes that NYC has the opportunity to embrace a radically different urban planning paradigm, one that places greater emphasis on livability than on the circulation of automobiles. We can craft a city where foot-traffic bolsters economic development, cyclists commute safely to work, and children play hopscotch in the streets. Or we can manufacture a city that endangers pedestrians, prioritizes inefficient car traffic, and chokes on airborne pollutants. Regardless, we have the choice: stickball or stoplights?