Click to read the full ebook

Click to read the full ebook

This week, we're sharing stories from Strong Towns members who will be speaking at our transportation summit in Tulsa, OK beginning on Thursday, March 30. Heyden Black Walker and Lauren Cresswell, who work on the planning team at Austin-based architecture and design firm Black + Vernooy, are leading a workshop entitled "Transportation Demand Management vs. Build Build Build." Their workshop will examine the true supply and demand mechanisms of highway construction using Texas as a case study. (Check out our recent podcast interview with Heyden and her 2016 article about building a better I-35 to get a taste.)

Today, we're sharing an excerpt from an ebook entitled Project Great Streets, which was created with support from Black + Vernooy. It details an initiative to create more people-friendly streets in Austin, TX, but the lessons are applicable everywhere. 

Consider what makes a city center magnetic, what can inject the gaiety, the wonder, the cheerful hurly-burly that make people want to come into the city and to linger there. For magnetism is the crux of the problem. All downtown’s values are its byproducts. To create in it an atmosphere of urbanity and exuberance is not a frivolous aim.
— Jane Jacobs, Downtown is for People

A city’s downtown comprises the heart of that city, and its streets form the primary public arena for interchange and commerce. Downtowns belong to everyone, and they should represent the community culturally, economically, and politically.

America’s downtowns are ripe for building people-centric space. With a grid street network and historic building stock, America’s urban downtowns are unique places, poised to benefit greatly from Great Streets. Great Streets are a holistic solution that incorporates the mission of Complete Streets, but carries that vision a step further to create active downtown public space.

Great Streets are streets that serve all users; that prioritize the pedestrian zone; that are comfortable, safe and dynamic; and that create a valuable public realm. These principles should be applied throughout the urban core, including where highways slice across that core. Great Streets are incremental public infrastructure investments that create vibrant public space, bringing good urban design, economic development, and tax base creation back to America’s downtowns.

Last day of the electric streetcar. Congress Avenue at 6th St, Austin, Texas, 1940.

Last day of the electric streetcar. Congress Avenue at 6th St, Austin, Texas, 1940.

What Austin Lost

Austin’s Congress Avenue, “The Main Street of Texas”, leads up to the state capitol complex (photo on the right). This photograph reminds us that at one time, Congress was a thriving street with a mix of transportation modes, retail, office, hotel, and residential uses. With the removal of streetcar in the 1940s and the subsequent prioritization of the automobile, Austin’s downtown lost the vitality illustrated by this photograph.

As transportation technology has changed, cities have redesigned urban spaces around new modes. After this day in 1940, streetcar and pedestrian infrastructure was removed and the public realm was dedicated to the car. With Great Streets, those that choose to walk, use transit, and bike to experience the city are once again prioritized and celebrated. In a 2000 Rural/Urban Development Assistance Team (R/UDAT) review of Austin, Tom Gougeon noted the issue:

Downtown environments create economic value because of the density of activity. If the street environments inhibit pedestrian activity, you get lower traffic, sales, attendance, etc. This translates into less value for land and commercial, residential space.

With the implementation of the first Great Streets, Congress Avenue is coming back to life. Shops, restaurants, offices, residents, and bars are returning to partake in the life and vitality of the street, much like they did in 1940.

Austin's 2nd Street, 2015

Austin's 2nd Street, 2015

The Guiding Principles of Great Streets

1. Manage Congestion. Congestion is a fact of life in successful urban places. By definition, a place that supports a great concentration of economic and social activities within a pedestrian-scaled environment is going to be congested

2. Balance the Uses. Downtown streets must balance the needs of pedestrians, transit, bicycles and cars in creating an attractive and viable urban core. Seen this way, the street system can become an integral framework for downtown. 

3. Streets are Places. A city’s downtown streets should be a vital focus of city life, and serve as a primary destination.

4. Interactive Places. Urban Streets are the stages on which the public life of the community is acted out. No design can be complete without people.

5. Take Pride in Place. Visible caring and upkeep can transform even the most ordinary of streets into wonderful places.

6. Create Public Art. Art in the public environment can help to establish a stronger sense of place and a continuity between the past, present and future.

You can read specific examples of Project Great Streets in action in Austin, TX and learn more about this initiative by visiting the Project Great Streets website. You can also download the full ebook about this initiative there.

(All images from Project Great Streets ebook)

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