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NYCSR in Chicago

In March 2007, The Project for Public Spaces' Fred Kent visited Chicago to meet with many of the key leaders in the Livable Streets movement. Kit Hodge, who was a key figure with NYCSR's birth in NYC, arranged several meetings and presentations - including a very productive, private meeting with Cheri Heramb, the Commissioner of Chicago DOT.

It's apparent that Chicago is on its way to developing and implementing key strategies that will transform its streets into safer, interactive public places. Just one is Mayor Richard Daley's Pedestrian Advisory Council of which Heramb is a co-chair. But even more vital is the air of cooperation and openess that exists in the city government to make a good faith effort to work with communities and advocates to change Chicago for the better.

Ethan Kent: [00:03] Project for Public Spaces was invited here to Chicago by Kit Hodge who actually helped to organise and found the New York City Streets Renaissance while she was in New York working for Transportation Alternatives. She set up a bunch of key meetings for us. First with the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation and a lot of her key staff. Then a public presentation where Fred Kent, the President of Project for Public Spaces presented, followed by the Commissioner. We got a lot of people excited.

Fred Kent: [00:27] Your streets are the greatest opportunity as they are in any city for defining your city and changing the whole perception of it. For seven years we’ve designed our city around cars basically. And now how do we spend the next five or ten to 20 years designing our cities around people, and taking the car largely out of the equation? Not emptying the city of cars, but bringing it back in the context of each neighbourhood. We just talked to about 130 people and they were so energised and engaged and so passionate about their city, and they’re all leaders. People coming from many, many different neighbourhoods, from many professionals. It’s an organic thing. It has to be done by a store owner here, a little… a person here. You don’t know what it is, it’s right there.

Ethan Kent: [01:10] We actually challenged them to go a lot further, to go for what they call context sensitive solution to actually doing placemaking, and the Commissioner really liked that idea.

Cheri Heramb: [01:19] Context sensitive design is the [unintelligible 01:21] transportation community. I really like placemaking much better because context sensitive design doesn’t mean much to people. So I think we’ll talk about placemaking.

Fred Kent: [01:32] She blew me away. I mean she just totally loves the idea of placemaking. It totally resonated with her whole focus for Chicago. She’s about building communities. She’s not about this idea of moving traffic.

Cheri Heramb: [01:47] We’ve been doing a variety of workshops at [unintelligible 01:49] with our staff on placement. We’ve also got a new group that we’re working with, it’s the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council that brings in experts from all over the city, from the hospitals, from institutions, education, the Parks is participating and our intention is to make Chicago a place where not only can people walk safely, but also enjoy the experience.

Ethan Kent: [02:17] More than anything else, what we’ve been struck by is how open they are with talking to us, talking about really challenging ideas, to talking about how to open up the public process, to focus to the transportation issues on broader outcomes, to look at themselves, the DOT, as really a community building agency.

Fred Kent: [02:33] What we’re talking about is how do we take these kind of storied cultures where the kids stand on the street corner and talk to each other and play ball and their parents are talking and, you know, the kind of neighbourhoods that we like to be part of? How do we understand those and how do we integrate those into a street system which is more about reducing friction, or getting rid of friction, and we need to bring those two worlds together? It’s really kind of energising to come here and to see the enormous receptivity the ideas that we’ve been trying to get into New York City system and there seems to be too many barriers to the New York City politics that don’t allow these ideas to percolate up from within the communities. And it’s a kind of a tragedy and I think in the long run it’ll be destructive for New York City.

Ethan Kent: [03:23] We had a meeting with the advocacy leaders in the city, a lot of young people that are involved in a lot of community based projects here. It was really exciting meeting all these people and seeing sort of the counterparts of the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign in Chicago.

Fred Kent: [03:35] The only way to design a good place is through people in that community, about asking what they’d like to do in that place.

Ethan Kent: [03:40] And what we’ve found is, you know, both communities and the professions in city government have sort of atrophied and they’re willing to be sort of creative and there’s sort of this structure that we sort of put everyone into these boxes, you know transportation and parks and buildings.

Fred Kent: [03:55] And they’re trying to work together. I mean to be very honest with you, you’ve got some very good people here and they just need to go a little further, and I think they can become enormous allies. But they need you more than you can imagine. I’m watching this streetsblog and the stuff that Ethan and Clarence are working on as… I’m watching to see how transformative that is within New York. So it’s a great time for change and maybe New York can learn from Chicago. Chicago’s going to get a lot better than New York without any question. Perhaps the change in administration within the Transportation Agency could actually open up a whole new era for the city and attract many, many partners.


Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • ecm

    It's very cool to see how willing Chicago's leaders are to think about people-oriented planning.

    If only New York's transporation leaders would take a risk, think outside their "band-aid" policies, and re-center their planning on the millions of pedestrians in this city.