…By Creating a Meaningful Sense of Place

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Project for Public Spaces, Inc., a non-profit planning firm that specializes in place-making, has a saying that can apply just as well to highways as to streets: “If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic, but if you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”[1] A new road should be about building stronger and healthier communities for the people who live there, not about building a way out of congestion. For decades, transportation planners have been trying to reduce congestion by building and expanding the highway system, and it has only led to more traffic and sprawl, along with their accompanying environmental, social, and public health woes.

Extensions to arterial highways between suburban communities and urban centers will not reduce the travel time by more than a few minutes in the long run, and this may not warrant billion-dollar investments, especially at a time when construction costs are skyrocketing, older infrastructure requires attention, and state highway budgets are being slashed. If arterial roads are built as conventional freeways without careful regional land-use planning, case studies from around the United States clearly show that within ten years such roads will likely become just as congested as existing roads in the area are today. But if roads are built to meet other objectives—to create healthier, more livable communities; to preserve open space and wildlife habitat; to create real, long-lasting economic value in neighboring towns; and to create places, rather than more faceless suburban sprawl—the enormous investments required to build such roads will bring benefits that could last for decades and enhance the entire region, rather than just providing temporary fixes.

Here is a vision for a road built to be a place and a link between strong, healthy communities:

Go Slow

A sustainable road will be a slow and gentle road, instead of a straight, high-speed freeway. Its maximum design speed should be 35–40 miles per hour (not the typical 60–70 mph) to allow it to bend around wetlands, farmlands, existing communities, and other sensitive features, rather than cleaving them in two. It will be an attractive parkway with a maximum of four lanes separated by a median, or alternatively, a two-lane boulevard with left-turn lanes; neither option will have grade separation at intersections. Eliminating overpasses will reduce the cost considerably, leaving extra money for place-making and open space preservation. Roundabouts will be utilized to create efficient intersections and provide attractive gateways into neighboring towns and parks. Contrary to popular belief, roundabouts pass traffic through an intersection far more effectively than conventional intersections.

Enhance Connectivity at the Local Level

The roadway will be designed to tie into a new grid of local streets, built over time to link to neighboring communities. Thus, the road will knit the region together as a local and regional connector instead of slicing through communities and fragile habitat. Isolated subdivisions, existing commercial districts, parks, and new compact development will be linked to the new road and to each other through the new road network.

Integrate Land Use and Transportation Planning

A sustainable road must be viewed as a transportation and land-use system to avoid the runaway sprawl and commercial strip development that has accompanied most new freeways. A new regional land-use plan will require compact mixed-use development and will protect open space, farmland, and other natural and cultural resources. New site development standards will reduce the impact of parking lots, multiple curb cuts, and stand-alone big-box development, as well as enhance the street environment for pedestrians and transit-users. This will do more in the long run to reduce congestion than massive infrastructure.

Incorporate Multi-Modal Transportation Opportunities

As a transportation system, the new road will be planned to offer a variety of transportation options: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or eventually light rail, bike paths, and walking trails. Bus connections, sidewalks, and bike lanes will feed into the adjacent communities using the new street grid, expanding transportation options throughout the region.

Engage the Community

All community stakeholders will be invited to help plan the road, as well as to envision the future of their own communities—their neighborhoods, businesses, commercial districts, and open spaces. The principles of “context-sensitive solutions” (CSS) will be utilized throughout the process. In Illinois, for example, various agency documents have recognized the importance of CSS by stating that “[t]hrough early, frequent and meaningful communication with stakeholders, and a flexible and creative approach to design, the resulting projects should improve safety and mobility for the traveling public, while seeking to preserve and enhance the scenic, economic, historic, and natural qualities of the settings through which they pass.” A state agency contemplating constructing a new road will put these principles into action.

Create Places and Destinations

Through place-making, an array of destinations will emerge, both along the roadway and in neighboring towns, that will give the road and the region an identity and a sense of place all its own. A place-making approach will challenge citizens to transform their public spaces into vibrant places that highlight local assets, revitalize local economies, and serve common needs. Such places help to forge healthier and more livable communities. For example, the citizens of Littleton, New Hampshire, a traditional New England village, used a state highway repaving project and a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to transform their downtown by widening sidewalks, improving pedestrian crossings, slowing traffic, and adding landscape elements and pedestrian amenities. The result is a more walkable Main Street with welcoming public spaces that encourage tourists to stop and local residents to gather downtown.

Project for Public Spaces uses a tool called the “Power of Ten” to help communities plan and program vibrant places. The “Power of Ten” is simply the idea that any great place should have at least ten things to do, but the concept can be extended to a city-wide or regional scale. For example, a sustainable road should offer at least ten great destinations, such as a park or revived downtown, and each of these destinations should have ten places each offering at least ten things to do. This would create a lively network of connected places throughout the region. Places and activities will complement and enrich each other. For example, a restaurant with outdoor dining on a lovely lake that offers boating and swimming, a playground for young children, and a path for strolling provides a wealth of activities in a park, transforming it into a destination.

Build a Parkway in Every Sense

A sustainable road will not look at all like the straight, wide, and fast highways we have come to know over the last sixty years. It will evoke a bucolic parkway from the early twentieth century, celebrating the area’s natural resources and scenic views and offering recreational opportunities that allow people to enjoy its pastoral beauty—a true link between humans and nature. It will be programmed, like a park, to accommodate many different uses and even closed regularly to cars to allow for a variety of recreational uses that bring the surrounding communities together.

It could resemble the nation’s first parkway, the Bronx River Parkway, which runs for 12.5 miles from the Bronx in New York City to the city of White Plains in Westchester County, New York. The parkway is a scenic, narrow highway completed in 1926 that winds through a park built along the Bronx River. It shares the park with walking trails, wildlife habitat, trees well over one hundred years old, and beautiful stone bridges and retaining walls. The maximum speed along most of its length is 40 mph. The parkway is closed on Sundays in the summer for biking and roller-blading, bringing communities along its length into contact with one another.

If it achieves the vision described above, a sustainable road will not become the high-speed shortcut that commuters in the area are looking for to get them to work in half the time. But it could never possibly be that. Rather, it will be the catalyst for change, transforming a suburban environment into a cluster of compact, livable communities adjacent to preserved green space, highlighted by wonderful places to walk, bike, and enjoy nature and vibrant places for communities to gather.

[1] Project for Public Spaces http://www.pps.org/

Featured image credit: Slow. By Henry Burrows courtesy of Flickr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

  • Meg Walker

    Meg Walker is Senior Director of Urban Design at Project for Public Spaces, Inc., a unique, non-profit planning and design firm located in New York City that is dedicated to helping people create public spaces that build strong communities.

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