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The Street Life of Havana

Project for Public Spaces' Ethan Kent recently visited Havana, Cuba and took some amazing photographs of street life, perfectly capturing the vitality of its neighborhoods. As you sit thru his reflections and wonderful montages of what he saw, think about what our streets might look like if they were designed for living and not for speed. Ethan posits:

"If children playing in the streets is an indicator of the success of a city, then Havana's streets may be some of the most successful in the world."

Havana serves as a window into some of what we have lost and what we can gain back. Come time travel with us.

Ethan Kent: [00:00] I’m Ethan Kent with Project for Public Spaces and I’m going to be talking about the streets of Havana, what perhaps we can learn from them in New York and around the world. It’s a really spectacular place to be, a really… it’s really alive and makes you feel alive. If children playing in the streets is an indicator of the success of a city, then Havana’s streets, maybe some of the most successful in the world. The street games are what strikes me more than anything. The amount of playing in the streets, the [unintelligible 00:25] games, there’s taxi drivers playing chess, there’s young kids playing stick ball, there’s older kids playing handball or, you know, sort of a larger version of stick ball, kids playing volleyball, exercising in the streets. The amount of activity of healthy social and physical activity in the streets with kids is just phenomenal. Amazing the amount of that go on in the street, there’s vending, there’s people selling flowers, there’s people socialising in front of their homes, there’s people playing board games of, you know, different groups of ages together. There’s a lot we can learn from the streets of Havana. Certainly it’s not anything to glorify, it’s not an ideal city or ideal street, just a lot of problems there. But at the same time I think Havana streets are a window into some of what we’ve lost in New York and around the world as we’ve started to plan for cars and traffic and not for people and places anymore. And the social realm in the street, people feel comfortable walking there and cars are an active part of the street, they add to the street experience. The drivers in cars are engaging with people, but they don’t dominate. There’s also pedestrian streets, there’s some great pedestrian streets there that really work as they have a lot of activity on them.


Ethan Kent: [01:31] I think they have some wonderfully designed boulevards, these centre median boulevards like Deprado there is an incredible example for any street. It’s something that Broadway in New York could liven the median in places and have public space down the middle. There’s kids playing there, there’s vendors, there’s, you know, older people spending a lot of time on the street. It’s a really spectacular boulevard street. And the other thing about street design there is the way the buildings interact with the street, the ground floors are very porous, the markets spill right out onto the street. There’s bars and restaurants where there’s a lot of social interaction, most of it taking place right on the street.


Ethan Kent: [02:07] By looking at Havana streets we can start to sort of see what we can bring back on our streets, while going forward as well.


Ethan Kent: [02:15] At Project for Public Spaces we talk about this idea of streets as places as perhaps the sort of paradigm shift for streets. This idea of streets as places is to start looking at that streets as public spaces again, planning for community outcomes and to stop planning for speed. And in a way that’s what they’ve been doing in Havana all this time and how they’re getting a lot of the positive outcomes that we’re not seeing in New York. Havana streets, they’re serving the communities most directly. They’re serving the buildings that use the streets, the children, the people, the residents that live in them are using these streets as extensions of their homes. And in some way their street’s, the public space in front of their homes are, you know, even more valuable than the space in their homes, that’s where they do a lot of their social activity, where they choose to spend a lot of their time.


Ethan Kent: [02:57] Cars go slowly there. They respect that the streets really belong to the people that live there and particularly the children. Again all these are the sort of things that we are losing. Our streets are actually degrading these aspects, you know, are degrading our public spaces, they’re degrading our communities and they’re degrading our health. So in many ways I think both Havana and the rest of the world are at this juncture right now where we can learn from each other and in Havana, they can sort of not make the same mistakes that we’ve made and the rest of the world, we can look at their streets and realise that if we stop planning for speed, start planning for community outcomes, and start looking at our streets as public spaces, that we can have really amazing, wonderful streets and we can have, you know, much happier children, much healthier communities, and much safer and more dynamic cities.


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