A new view on public space

A new view on public space


hope street5
When most people think about the subject of “public space” they will often immediately think of leafy parks and large city squares. But what about the streets and sidewalks? The streetscape that lies between private parcels of land probably represents more than 95% of all the publicly-owned space in a typical town or city, far overshadowing the parks and squares which often dominate the public imagination. These streets are not just the routes by which vehicles make their way around the city. They are the connective tissue that holds the city together visually. Similarly, sidewalks are not just the space between the road and the building lots, they are the frame which sets up the beauty and historic character of the structures that they border, like picture frames around a painting. This realization that the majority of public space has been treated in a purely pragmatic way means that there is a wonderful opportunity to enhance the beauty of our city and accentuate its historic character in ways that have barely been considered. Just by caring and thinking more about these realms will help city planners to do a better job managing these forgotten resources.

By creating streets and sidewalks that are more conducive to bicycling and walking, town planners have an opportunity to counteract two of the greatest health scourges we are facing today: the tremendous increase in childhood obesity and early onset of Type II diabetes. Mark Fenton, host of the show “America’s Walking,” has recently documented how designing better streets and sidewalks can help raise “free range children”—kids who are healthy, independent and more self-sufficient. This also helps free parents from the burden of being glorified chauffeurs, shuttling children from one programmed activity to another endlessly until the children become part of the traffic problem themselves upon gaining their driver’s licenses.

Bristol’s Fourth of July parade, first begun in 1785 and famous for being the oldest celebration of its type in the country is an example of how important the realm of the streetscape can become over time. The parade route winds through the center of town on Hope and High streets, and takes advantage of the traditional scale of these thoroughfares which are geared much more to pedestrian safety than vehicular velocity or volume. With sidewalks and retail stores ideally sized and located to service the tourists and locals alike, it is no surprise that this Independence Day tradition has thrived and grown in Bristol over the years.

Now that Bristol has been greatly restored to its historic character, it’s become a gathering place for shared events, not just on special holidays but year round. The character of the streetscape helps determine the character of the activities and businesses that choose to operate there. July fourth is a date when all eyes are on Bristol and thousands come to celebrate its long traditions and beautiful character. By continuing to build upon and enhance this great streetscape as a resource, the community is making this area work to its benefit every day of the year. On July Fourth, Bristol celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, where the signers boldly and bravely swore to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to achieve liberty and seek freedom from an unjust subjugation by the English throne. Think of the parade as not only the celebration of the patriotic traditions of the town, state and country but also the historic traditions of city design where sidewalks, streets and public roadways were not just the means to get somewhere else but actually places to walk, shop, gather as a community and to help citizens live richer, fuller and healthier lives. Now that is something worth celebrating for many more years to come.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, urban planner, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport.


  1. One must only look to the parking lot at the end of the bike path to understand that Bristol, other than downtown, is not a walkable or bike friendly community. Most users of the bike path drive from their homes to parking along Thames Street defeating the purpose. Metacom Avenue is the China Wall separating the town and makes walking and biking out of these neighborhoods difficult and dangerous. Mt. Hope, Bayview, Chestnut and Gooding Avenues, if feasible, should have bike lanes to provide a safe transition to downtown. A bike lane on Metacom from at least Franklin to Roger Williams would be ideal.

    Also, though we have a plethora of traffic lights along Metacom, none of these (except possibly Gooding??) are pedestrian activated. Metacom is almost impossible to cross safely and this situation will become much worse when the tolls are implemented on the Sakonnet River Bridge. Let’s start with a pedestrian activated light at the intersection of Bayview and Metacom at the CVS/Cumberland Farms plaza. This will allow residents west of Metacom, and especially the students in the Almeida Dorms, to safely walk across Metacom to do their shopping rather than having to jump in their cars to safely traverse an eighth of a mile.

    • Further to my point, I inputed some addresses into the walk score database http://www.walkscore.com and discovered the following ratings:

      Hope Street and Gooding, is car dependent with a walkscore rating of 48, Thames Street, is walkers paradise with a rating of 95, Wood Street, is also a walkers paradise with a rating of 95, the Bristol Police Station, is somewhat walkable with a rating of 51, Sowams Drive east of Metacom, is car dependent with a 48 rating and Hopeworth Avenue is rated at a 15 and is very car dependent. Overall the town of Bristol is rated at as somewhat walkable with a score of 40. I believe these numbers are very easy to change and I hope our Community Planner is reading this!

    • Drivers east of Metacom headed north usually use a rolling stop rather than come to a full stop then moving. I’ve never seen one of them ticketed.

      How idealistic for east of Metacom residents to have their own bike path. East of Metacom there are no businesses other than right on Metacom. There are no schools there. There are no parking problems.

      Everything gets dumped into the downtown area.

      Walkscore seems based on whether you can walk to some business and since very few are on Metacom it gets a low score. Jacobs Point which is right on the bike path gets a 15 so obviously this has NOTHING to do with the bike path.